By KEITH LAING
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Feb. 18, 2011……..As some lawmakers seek to work around Gov. Rick Scott’s rejection of federal high speed rail money, House Speaker Dean Cannon asked U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood not to railroad other transportation projects in the state, a spokeswoman for his office said Friday.
Speaking with LaHood after a meeting at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Washington, D.C., Cannon told the transportation secretary that he agreed with Scott’s decision to reject the rail money, spokeswoman Katie Betta. But Cannon also told LaHood he hoped the state would be looked favorably upon for other federal transportation projects.
“He told (LaHood) that he agreed with Gov. Scott’s decision based on the long term costs, but he hopes they can still work together on other transportation projects,” Betta told the News Service of Florida Friday. “They specifically talked about ports. Secretary LaHood assured him that Florida would not be disadvantaged because of disagreement on one project.”
The conversation comes a day after a bipartisan group of 26 state senators, a veto-proof majority, sent LaHood a letter questioning Scott’s constitutional authority to decline the money, and suggesting they had the legal ability to do it without him. LaHood gave Florida a week to create a plan to accept the money before he begins giving it away to other states. California and New York have already expressed interest in receiving the $2.4 billion if Florida does not want it.
Meanwhile Friday, Senate President Mike Haridopolos issued his first comments since Scott rejected the money for the Tampa-to-Orlando train, which he had already said he was opposed to spending state money on.
“The federal government has earmarked $2.4 billion to finance part of the cost of construction of the proposed Florida high-speed rail project,” Haridopolos said in a statement. “But to do so, Washington would borrow 100 percent of that money, which would be financed in large part by foreign, non-democratic governments.”
The statements from the legislative leaders, Haridopolos’ in particular, showed how quickly the issue of rail – which they both have supported in past years – has become a political football. Haridopolos, who is running for U.S. Senate in 2012, moved quickly from commenting on the individual Tampa-to-Orlando train to slamming President Barack Obama over the federal deficit.
“There is no more important issue today for the long-term well being of our nation than to rein in deficit spending. Washington’s reckless spending addiction has set our nation on a critically dangerous path,” he said. “For the good of the nation, it’s time to change course.”
“Florida is leading by example in keeping its fiscal house in order,” he continued. “We must demand the same from Washington. To President Obama and all members of Congress, I say we are far better off reducing the $1.5 trillion in proposed deficit spending by this $2.4 billion than we are to build a rail project that has a questionable, at-best, economic viability.”
Meanwhile, Democrats circulated vote histories from a 2009 special session where lawmakers approved a separate train in Orlando, SunRail. One of the reasons cited at the time for backing that train was to convince federal officials to give them the high speed rail money that Scott rejected this week.
“Thought the attached Senate and House Journals from the 2009 Special Session, where Mike Haridopolos, Dean Cannon, Adam Hasner and most of the other Republicans voted to approve high-speed rail would be helpful today,” Democratic Party spokesman Eric Jotkoff wrote in an E-mail.
Additionally, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who has been vocally supportive of the project even as conservatives attacked him for it, has hammered Scott’s decision, writing in an op-ed in the St. Petersburg Times “I urge the governor to set aside the partisan rhetoric and reconsider his decision – before it’s too late.”
For his part, Scott, for whom the rail decision has prompted speculation he might be considering a run for president next year, praised Haridopolos for backing putting the brakes on the train and attacking Obama’s economic record.
“President Haridopolos recognizes that cost overruns from the project could put Florida taxpayers on the hook, ridership and revenue projections are historically overly-optimistic, and if the project becomes too costly for taxpayers and is shut down, the state would have to return the $2.4 billion in federal funds to D.C,” Scott said Friday. “In addition, President Haridopolos is right to criticize the bloated spending of our federal government. In Washington, reckless spending continues as President Obama has brought forward a record deficit with his latest budget. To get Florida and the nation back to work, we must get serious about ending this culture of debt and government waste.”
Scott also found some support for his rail decision from the conservative Americans for Prosperity, which encouraged its members to write the members of the Haridopolos-led Senate who signed the letter to Transportation Secretary LaHood.
“Taxpayers throughout Florida have made clear their opposition to a high speed rail project that would leave taxpayers on the hook for years to come,” AFP Florida state director Apryl Marie Fogel said. “We applaud Gov. Scott for taking a tough stand and turning away federal money. Scott lends a voice of reason to a debate where special and self interest has seemed to become the priority over good policy-making. This project would saddle Floridians with a future that includes a looming threat of untold amounts of debt.”
Other key elements of the Republican establishment, big business groups, have been more measured in responses to Scott’s decision because they generally supported the rail project.