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Drilling could help state, deserves a hearing
      Jane Healy
      Feet to the Fire
      September 27, 2009 

With its economy in the worst shape in decades, Florida has few places to turn. This probably means that the state will have to consider doing something it has resisted for years: lifting the ban on oil-and-gas exploration in the Gulf. Whether that becomes positive or negative will depend on how elected officials approach it.

How to approach drilling, Part 1.

It really is unfortunate that Florida finds itself so strapped. But this is the grim reality after the go-go years of rapid growth and an ever-expanding economy. While the state's financial problems were masked somewhat this year by the federal stimulus money, that won't help two years from now.

In fact, the transition could be brutal since the Legislature used a lot of the stimulus money for ongoing operations, such as education, that will need to be sustained. And if Congress passes a health-care bill, Florida and other states fear they will get stuck with an even higher Medicaid bill.

Where does the state turn? Higher or broader sales taxes? Hardly. That could make a weak economy even weaker. A tax increase could sap businesses just as they might be recovering. And forget property-tax increases. Citizens have already rightly rebelled on that one, forcing local governments to stop their spending sprees.

Is gambling the answer? Unlikely. Revenue from that would probably amount to shifting entertainment dollars, not adding new ones.

As for population growth fueling more dollars, you can forget that, too, at least for a while. New projections show Florida growing little, if at all, in the near-term.

Revenue from drilling may be the only new source Florida has to bail itself out. Supporters say it could bring in as much as several billion dollars a year in lease payments. That's the equivalent of a half-cent increase in the sales tax,

But that will be for naught if drilling ruins the very things that make Florida so special.

So to even consider drilling, our elected officials would be irresponsible not to set strict parameters. At the very least, it shouldn't hurt the environment, tourism or renewable-energy initiatives, such as solar power.

The environmental standards should be nonnegotiable: banning drilling in sensitive areas near coral reefs or aquatic preserves, for instance, and requiring steep performance bonds should the need for a cleanup arise. New technology has made spills from drilling few and far between. Usually spills come from tankers. But that doesn't mean one might not happen, and Florida would have to be proactive.

As for tourism, it would be crazy for Florida to allow rigs that can be seen from the Gulf beaches. New technology now allows drilling without unsightly rigs, but even temporary structures should be out of sight and out of mind. It's both an economic and an aesthetic issue — not just for tourists but residents as well.

How to approach drilling, Part 2.

Don't let the Legislature anywhere near the potential leases.

Legislation would be needed to lift the ban on the drilling, and legislators might consider it as early as a November special session. But then they should get lost. The last thing we need is legislators being buffeted by special interests from individual districts. Can you even imagine?

The governor and the Cabinet would be in the best position to consider leases. Elected statewide, at least they're beholden to all voters. They also would be in the best position to detect scam artists who might eye the leases as an easy way to snare investors. Florida has had enough of those with land-investment scams, hasn't it? Companies without a track record in the oil or gas industry deserve to be shown the door. Drilling shouldn't be seen as just the next new sucker scheme in Florida.

It should be seen as a possible way to ease financial mess — if done right, that is.

You can contact Jane Healy at She'd like to hear about public officials who need their feet kept to the fire.

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