Category Archives: The News Service of Florida

LATVALA: BULLET TRAIN LIKELY AT END OF THE LINE

By KEITH LAING
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

www.newsserviceflorida.com

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Feb. 22, 2011…….Though he has expressed dismay that Gov. Rick Scott rejected $2.4 billion in federal money for high speed rail in Florida without consulting him, the chairman of Senate Transportation Committee said Tuesday he thinks the governor’s “No” may be the last stop for the long-sought train connecting Tampa and Orlando.

Sen. Jack Latvala said there likely would not be a legislative solution to accepting the money without Scott’s approval, even though he still supports the proposed 168 mile-per-hour train and signed a letter to U.S. transportation officials last week asking for more time to work around Scott’s objection.

What would have been a bipartisan group of 26 Florida senators wrote to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood suggesting the Passenger Rail Commission and Rail Enterprise could accept the cash, though one of those lawmakers later rescinded his signature. But even after hearing a presentation from the rail commission Tuesday, Latvala said “the only live prospect out there” was local governments partnering to accept the money.

“I don’t think it’ll come to the state,” Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, told the News Service of Florida. “It might be some kind of agreement that waives liability from the state.”

But even that possibility might not see the light at the end of the tunnel, Latvala added, saying “I’m not optimistic.”

Florida was given a week to create a plan to accept the money before its rail money is given away to other states. California and New York have already expressed interest in receiving the $2.4 billion if Florida does not want it.

Perhaps coloring Latvala’s pessimism, Scott has continued to stand firm in his opposition to accepting the cash. Scott told reporters after a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday that South Florida’s Tri-Rail showed him that rail supporters like Latvala would not be able to produce a plan that did not involve the state taking a financial risk.

“If you look at ridership studies, there’s no way in the world we’re not going to have operational losses,” Scott said before mentioning the existing commuter rail in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties. “Tri-rail has almost $65 million in operating cost. The fares only cover $10 million of it….so each of you as taxpayers, you help subsidize it to the tune of $35 million a year.

“If you look at the risk of cost overruns (and) ridership studies, if we make a mistake and we’re wrong, we have to give $2.4 billion back to the federal government, it’s not worth the risk,” Scott continued. “I want to focus on ports, highways and logistics. That’s what going to change and create private sector jobs.”

Still, Florida Assistant Transportation Secretary for Engineering and Operations Kevin Thibault said Tuesday that the department was going to complete a pair of ridership studies that Scott previously said the he was interested in – but hasn’t seen yet because they’re not finished.

“Obviously we’re working with our federal partners as well because they’ve paid for funding the studies,” said Thibault, who runs the Florida Rail Enterprise.

Thibault said the DOT or the Rail Enterprise wouldn’t comment on any of the possible work-arounds being floated, even though one of them involves the enterprise itself.

“We haven’t been involved in it at all,” Thibault said of proposals that have been floated to get the federal money to Florida without the governor’s OK.

Meanwhile, the senator who backtracked on his opposition to Scott’s decision said Tuesday that signed and then unsigned a letter seeking to undercut Scott on purpose.

The purpose was to let Scott know that he needed to work with the Legislature on rail plans involving state money, like the proposed SunRail commuter train in Orlando.

“I think the letter explained it about as well as it could be explained,” said Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker. “Here the governor is saying that he’s wanting to give back the money to the feds. Well, I didn’t have a problem with that up until the point that he’s wanting us to spend more state money on SunRail. I took issue with that, so in my way, I was sending a message to the governor.”

-END-
2/22/11

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SCOTT STANDS FIRM AGAINST RAIL AS VETO-PROOF GOES POOF

By KEITH LAING
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

www.newsserviceflorida.com

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Feb. 21, 2011 …….While backers rallied Monday in Tampa and officials in Washington continued working on plans that did not involve state approval, Gov. Rick Scott reiterated his objection to accepting federal money for high speed rail in central Florida, even if the state is not involved.

And the effort by lawmakers to go around Scott’s objection was weakened when one of the 26 state senators who signed a letter opposing Scott’s move changed his mind. Twenty-six was a veto-proof number in the Senate, but with the defection of Sen. Greg Evers, that’s no longer the case.

But even so, Scott told reporters Monday in Tallahassee that he was doubtful a plan could emerge that would satisfy his concerns over the long-sought Tampa-to-Orlando project, for which the federal government had offered to pay $2.4 billion of the roughly $2.7 billion projected cost.

“As you know, I’ve said all along I don’t believe that there is anyway the taxpayers of the state should be on the hook for the operational cost of that or for the risks if it gets shut down,” Scott said Monday. “I don’t see any way to do that.”

Over the weekend, rail advocates had hoped that Scott was leaving the door open to the possibility of allowing them to accept the money. A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said the Democrat came away from a joint appearance with Scott at the Daytona 500 convinced the governor would at least look at the plans being crafted.

However, Scott appeared Monday to put the horse back in the barn.

“Despite efforts by many to re-open the door to high speed rail, my position has not changed,” he posted on his Facebook page, on which he has almost 60,000 friends.

Meanwhile, Evers, R-Baker, said he regretted signing the letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood last week that suggested that two statewide rail panels set up by the Legislature could accept the $2.4 billion Scott rejected.

“As a representative of the people of Florida Senate District 2, I do hereby remove my signature on the letter you received on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011, regarding funding for High Speed Rail,” Evers wrote to LaHood. “Let me be very clear. I do not want to spend one dime on High Speed Rail and I absolutely support Gov. Scott sending the money back. I regret signing the letter as I believe it misconstrued my position on High Speed Rail.

“I was trying to send a message to Gov. Scott to bring to the forefront my firm belief that we should not fund any rail projects with state or federal money,” Evers concluded.

Evers also suggested that Scott put the brakes on a separate proposed commuter train in Orlando, SunRail, which the governor has said he is currently reviewing. Without Evers on board, lawmakers in the Florida Senate lose the implied possibility of overriding a veto of any rail legislation or budget line items they pass.

However, another plan emerged Monday that would not involve lawmakers in Tallahassee at all. The plan, which U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor detailed to reporters, would call for the creation of a new independent agency with representatives from the local jurisdictions that would house the proposed 84-mile train.

A separate plan from Orlando Congressman John Mica, the chairman of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure committee, would have called for the first leg of the train to be shortened to 21 miles between the Orlando Airport to the city’s convention center and Disney World to prove the viability of the train to Scott. That plan appeared to never get rolling with U.S. transportation officials, however.

An afternoon “Rally for Rail” in Tampa was said to have drawn about 200 people, though opponents of the project ran a counter-rally to convince Scott to stand firm against the project. The event was co-sponsored by former Tampa City Councilwoman Linda Saul-Sena and the Livable Tampa Roundtable group.

-END-
2/21/11

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SCOTT STANDS FIRM AGAINST RAIL AS VETO-PROOF GOES POOF

By KEITH LAING
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

www.newsserviceflorida.com

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Feb. 21, 2011 …….While backers rallied Monday in Tampa and officials in Washington continued working on plans that did not involve state approval, Gov. Rick Scott reiterated his objection to accepting federal money for high speed rail in central Florida, even if the state is not involved.

And the effort by lawmakers to go around Scott’s objection was weakened when one of the 26 state senators who signed a letter opposing Scott’s move changed his mind. Twenty-six was a veto-proof number in the Senate, but with the defection of Sen. Greg Evers, that’s no longer the case.

But even so, Scott told reporters Monday in Tallahassee that he was doubtful a plan could emerge that would satisfy his concerns over the long-sought Tampa-to-Orlando project, for which the federal government had offered to pay $2.4 billion of the roughly $2.7 billion projected cost.

“As you know, I’ve said all along I don’t believe that there is anyway the taxpayers of the state should be on the hook for the operational cost of that or for the risks if it gets shut down,” Scott said Monday. “I don’t see any way to do that.”

Over the weekend, rail advocates had hoped that Scott was leaving the door open to the possibility of allowing them to accept the money. A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said the Democrat came away from a joint appearance with Scott at the Daytona 500 convinced the governor would at least look at the plans being crafted.

However, Scott appeared Monday to put the horse back in the barn.

“Despite efforts by many to re-open the door to high speed rail, my position has not changed,” he posted on his Facebook page, on which he has almost 60,000 friends.

Meanwhile, Evers, R-Baker, said he regretted signing the letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood last week that suggested that two statewide rail panels set up by the Legislature could accept the $2.4 billion Scott rejected.

“As a representative of the people of Florida Senate District 2, I do hereby remove my signature on the letter you received on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011, regarding funding for High Speed Rail,” Evers wrote to LaHood. “Let me be very clear. I do not want to spend one dime on High Speed Rail and I absolutely support Gov. Scott sending the money back. I regret signing the letter as I believe it misconstrued my position on High Speed Rail.

“I was trying to send a message to Gov. Scott to bring to the forefront my firm belief that we should not fund any rail projects with state or federal money,” Evers concluded.

Evers also suggested that Scott put the brakes on a separate proposed commuter train in Orlando, SunRail, which the governor has said he is currently reviewing. Without Evers on board, lawmakers in the Florida Senate lose the implied possibility of overriding a veto of any rail legislation or budget line items they pass.

However, another plan emerged Monday that would not involve lawmakers in Tallahassee at all. The plan, which U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor detailed to reporters, would call for the creation of a new independent agency with representatives from the local jurisdictions that would house the proposed 84-mile train.

A separate plan from Orlando Congressman John Mica, the chairman of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure committee, would have called for the first leg of the train to be shortened to 21 miles between the Orlando Airport to the city’s convention center and Disney World to prove the viability of the train to Scott. That plan appeared to never get rolling with U.S. transportation officials, however.

An afternoon “Rally for Rail” in Tampa was said to have drawn about 200 people, though opponents of the project ran a counter-rally to convince Scott to stand firm against the project. The event was co-sponsored by former Tampa City Councilwoman Linda Saul-Sena and the Livable Tampa Roundtable group.

-END-
2/21/11

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BLACK CAUCUS NOT HOPEFUL AFTER MEETING WITH SCOTT

By KEITH LAING
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

www.newsserviceflorida.com

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Feb. 15, 2011……….Despite a cordial meeting with Gov. Rick Scott at the Governor’s Mansion in Tallahassee, members of the legislative black caucus said Tuesday they were not optimistic they would be able to find much common ground with the new governor they all campaigned against.

And that’s despite him having a former member of their group as his lieutenant governor.

“The governor is real set in his ways. He has a very, very pro- corporate conservative view of how life should be and he’s very entrenched,” Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, told the News Service of Florida as he walked out of the Mansion. “We talked about appointments, education spending, health care, all the major issues and his response was always ‘I was raised this way and this is what I believe and how I’m going to govern.'”

“Our job over the next four years is to educate him that everybody is not the same in Florida and not everyone has the same opportunities,” Smith said.

Asked if the presence of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, Florida’s first black second-in-command, helped any, Smith said only “I pray that it helps to have her in there.”

Those seemed to be the sentiments of many of the 20-plus members of the Florida Conference of Black State Lawmakers as they left an hour-long lunch with Scott Tuesday. Days before Scott and Carroll’s inauguration, members of the mostly-Democratic black caucus attended a reception at the state’s largest historically black university to honor Carroll’s election.

Tuesday, they were saying that even with Carroll on Scott’s team, the governor didn’t appear eager to take up their concerns.

“Nothing new,” said state Rep. Oscar Braynon, who is running for a vacant state Senate seat, when asked what he heard from the governor Tuesday. “He told us what he believed; we told him what we believed. We told him about our concerns with the budget, he continued to say what I call the company line ‘that we don’t have unlimited resources.'”

Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, said the caucus members and the governor had a “spirited conversation” Tuesday, but he did not expect it to foster better relations. However, the presence of Carroll, who had been the lone Republican black lawmaker, could still be an ice breaker, he said.

“Jennifer Carroll will know a lot of our issues,” Braynon said. “It’s early to tell what that will manifest into, but a big issue we had was with the (proposed) elimination of the Office of Supplier Diversity. With Jennifer in the room, he told us that the plan was to roll that over into another agency. That may not have had happened had she not been there.”

The chairman of the Conference of Black State Lawmakers, Sen. Gary Siplin, said Scott told members he had not named any black state agency heads in part because he hadn’t received any suggestions on qualified people for those jobs, or for that matter for state contractors.

So the caucus is going to give him some.

“It was a beginning, our first opportunity to meet with a governor who has very little experience in public office,” Siplin, D-Orlando, said of the meeting. “He did offer to allow us to make recommendations on secretaries and other boards and black businesses to compete for some of these suspended contracts, so we’re going to hold a press conference (Wednesday) at noon in front of his office.”

The black lawmakers plan to announce a recruiting effort – seeking to get some suggestions for possible agency heads from the minority community.

The caucus will also press Scott to restore funding for the state’s historically black colleges, Siplin said. The only one included in Scott’s $65.9 billion plan was Edward Waters College, which is located near Carroll’s old House district. Otherwise, Scott’s budget request eliminates funding for most private universities, including HBCUs, and reduces spending on most public schools, too.

Siplin added that he would press for job creation efforts targeted at black residents because “when the economy is down for Florida in general, it’s even more down for us.”

He credited Carroll with coordinating Tuesday’s meeting between the black caucus and Scott and said she planned to meet with the lawmakers to discuss their budget concerns next week.

“It’s very important,” to have Carroll in the Scott administration, Siplin said. “She’s very sensitive to our needs.”

He added that he is less pessimistic than some of his colleagues appeared about Scott, at least when it came to increasing the amount of diversity in his hires.

“I’m hoping he’ll follow in the example of Bush, Crist and even the Senate president, who appointed me as a black (committee) chairman and (that Scott will) step in line,” said Siplin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, one of only two posts to go to Democrats in the overwhelmingly Republican chamber. “I’m looking forward to submitting the names.”

A spokesman for Scott said the governor was looking forward to hearing from the caucus, though no promises were made on anything they discussed Tuesday.

“The governor enjoyed the meeting and appreciated the open dialogue,” said Scott spokesman Brian Burgess. “Both he and the members of the caucus share the same goal to turn Florida’s economy around and create jobs.”

-END-
2/15/11

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WEEKLY ROUNDUP – PESKY LITTLE THINGS

(Recap and analysis of the week in state government)

By KEITH LAING
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

www.newsserviceflorida.com

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Feb. 18, 2011……….Gov. Rick Scott found out this week that there is this pesky little thing called the Florida Legislature as lawmakers pushed back on a couple of his decisions for the first time.

Whatever leftover warm-and-fuzziness there was with lawmakers from Scott’s inauguration came to a screeching halt at least as sudden as the one he put on a proposed Tampa-to-Orlando high speed rail by rejecting 2.4 billion federal dollars to build it.

If that wasn’t enough transport angst, the Senate chief budget writer brought some turbulence to Scott’s much-ballyhooed sale of the state aircraft fleet by saying that the get to work governor may have violated state law and even the constitution by selling off the planes.

If they ever had been honeymooners, several lawmakers skipped the muttering of “one of these days… one of these days,” this week. A veto-proof number of them got right to work themselves trying to detour around Scott to take the train money anyway.

Led by rail supporter Sen. Paula Dockery, a bipartisan group of 26 Florida senators sent a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood suggesting the Passenger Rail Commission and Rail Enterprise could accept the cash.

Also picking up steam by the end of the week was the possibility that cities and counties or transportation planning organizations in central Florida could bypass the state and directly accept the cash.

Dockery so vocally supported Scott’s campaign that she was rumored to be under consideration to be his lieutenant governor or transportation secretary. But by week’s end, she was the conductor of the anti-Scott train.

“I’m hearing from central Florida that the mayors are getting together talking about what they can do, I’m hearing that the (metropolitan planning organizations) are talking about what they can, I’m hearing that Chambers of Commerce in Miami and other places are talking about what they can do…so there’s a lot of efforts going on,” she told reporters as she collected signatures for her letter to LaHood.

Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich indicated this week that her 11-member caucus would be willing to participate in any legislative effort to create an end-run around Scott on rail, and indeed all of them signed onto to Dockery’s letter.

The public backlash is not to suggest that there was not also quiet muttering about Scott’s decision this week. Most of it wasn’t fit to print.

“At least today I’m not using four letter words,” said Rich Templin, vice-president of one of the state’s largest labor unions, the AFL-CIO, said the day after Scott’s decision. “This is a tragedy, a disaster of unmitigated proportions.”

One of the capital’s newspaper bureaus quoted an unnamed source in the Legislature asking if Scott was “****ing crazy.”

There were some cheers for Scott’s decision coming from the fourth floor of the Capitol, though it took three days before even a peep was heard from Senate President Mike Haridopolos. When the aspiring U.S. Senate candidate finally decided to speak, he was definitely not saying “all aboard.”

“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.”

Haridopolos quickly steered the conversation toward President Barack Obama however, making clear that high speed rail may be the new stimulus – a dirty word to conservatives – in Florida politics.

There were no physical hugs involved this time around, but Scott did quickly embrace the support he got from Haridopolos.

“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.

WOULD MILLION AIR RETURN TO ITS GATE?

The skies weren’t friendly either for Gov. Scott this week as the chief budget writer in the state Senate said the governor should have checked with lawmakers before he took off with his plan to sell two state airplanes.

Scott’s sale of the state’s planes may have violated Florida law, Sen. JD Alexander wrote in a letter to the governor. It would have been a striking accusation anyway, but the fact that it was coming from a senator who has himself clamored for the planes to be sold for years made it all the more surprising.

But there can only be one pilot of state finances, Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said, and the Legislature should be in the cockpit.

“I support your goal, but not the method,” Alexander wrote. “It is important that the proper procedures for accomplishing a goal we both support be followed.”

“It is my position that you should have sought the approval of the Legislature before undertaking the sale of the state planes and using the proceeds of the sale of Plane One to satisfy the lease obligation of Plane Two,” he continued. “My concern, of course, is that these actions may have violated the law and as such fail to recognize the Legislature by not respecting the Legislature’s constitutional duty to appropriate funds and your duty to spend appropriated funds in accordance with the law.”

As he did with the train, Scott saw nothing wrong with his unilateral decision to ground the state planes, telling reporters “We did it absolutely in compliance with the law. We reviewed it with our general counsel.”

Unfortunately for the get to work governor, that’s not who Alexander would have liked him to have reviewed it with.

I SAW T-PAW

With it being 52 degrees warmer in Tallahassee than St. Paul Friday, Tim Pawlenty probably was not the only Minnesotan in Florida this week. But the former North Star State governor was probably the only snowbird in Tallahassee seriously considered a bet to make a run for the White House.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos delivered on his promise to bring potential Republican U.S. presidential candidates to Florida, introducing Pawlenty to a crowd of mostly GOP lawmakers in the historic state Capitol.

Pawlenty, who was governor of Minnesota from 2003 to 2011, introduced himself and took questions as he tests the waters for a 2012 presidential run.

“In Minnesota, the land of McCarthy, Humphrey, Mondale, Wellstone…and now U.S. Sen. Al Franken, we took spending and cut it in real terms for the first time in 150 year history of my state,” he said.

And politically, Minnesota’s no Florida, Pawlenty made sure to note.

“There was one state that did not vote for Ronald Reagan in the entire nation,” he said. “Guess which one it was? Minnesota. If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.”

Pawlenty didn’t talk much about Florida-specific issues, with the exception being teacher merit pay. He brought up the bill vetoed last year by then-Gov. Charlie Crist that would have tied teacher pay to student performance.

“I would salivate, I would dream about a bill like that having come to my desk when I was governor. I wish I could have gotten a bill like that,” Pawlenty said.

The mostly Republican audience was not exactly salivating about Pawlenty’s presidential prospects, though they clearly wanted to know more about him. To do so, they took turns peppering him with questions about health care, immigration, national defense and U.S. fiscal policy.

Senate President Haridopolos asked Pawlenty what he thought about President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, which was recently ruled unconstitutional by a Florida U.S. District Judge.

“I’m one of the authors of the amicus brief that was filed with Florida as a venue, so thank you for that,” Pawlenty said, adding that the health care law was “one of the worst pieces of legislation in modern history.”

Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, followed up with a question about whether Pawlenty would support a constitutional requirement that Congress balance the federal budget similar to the Florida requirement.

“Budgets get balanced in states because they have to,” Pawlenty responded. “They don’t get balanced in Washington, D.C. because they don’t have to be. We need to make that a requirement.”

Despite his bromance with Haridopolos however, Pawlenty did not endorse the Senate president for U.S. Senate, saying only that he was “a man of great talent.” Haridopolos returned the favor by not making any endorsement of Pawlenty either.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Rick Scott derailed a proposed high speed train in Florida this week, and possibly his working relationship with the Florida Legislature along with it

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “There is this pesky thing called a constitution that limits authority. I still believe the genius of America isn’t just democracy but its divided government and limitations on each individual’s ability to act unilaterally,” Sen. JD Alexander, expressing what was a common refrain around the state Capitol after Scott put the brakes on the bullet train.

-END-
2/18/11

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LEGISLATIVE LEADERS TAKE DIFFERENT TRACKS ON RAIL

By KEITH LAING
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

www.newsserviceflorida.com

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.

-END-
2/18/11

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LAWMAKERS WANT TO ROUTE RAIL AROUND SCOTT

By KEITH LAING
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

www.newsserviceflorida.com

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Feb. 17, 2011……..Still stinging from Gov. Rick Scott’s rejection of $2.4 billion from Washington for a Tampa-to-Orlando bullet train, lawmakers asked Thursday for more time to figure out how they could accept the money without him.

Among the possibilities floated by the lawmakes was that the rail commission they created last year could accept the money, while cities were buzzing Thursday with questions about whether they could accept the cash and bypass the state.

Led by ardent rail supporter Sen. Paula Dockery, a bipartisan group of 26 Florida senators sent a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood suggesting the Passenger Rail Commission and Rail Enterprise could accept the cash. The commission and enterprise were created in a 2009 special session on rail issues.

The number of signatories on the letter is significant – 26 is the number of votes that would be necessary to override a Scott veto.

A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson told the News Service of Florida that LaHood agreed to give them a week before he began looking into giving the money to other states like New York and California, who have already indicated they want it. However, LaHood did not immediately approve of the rail panel plan.

“The enterprise could have the ability…to independently move forward with Florida’s plans for high speed rail,” the senators wrote, making the case that he should. “Please give us the time necessary to work with the enterprise prior to re-allocating Florida’s funds to another state. Politics should have no place in the future of Florida’s transportation, as evidenced by this letter of bipartisan support.”

Speaking with reporters as she collected signatures at the Florida Capitol Thursday, Dockery said that lawmakers and local officials in central Florida were keeping all of their options open as they sought to react to Scott’s decision this week. And not many of them involve the governor, she added.

“I’m hearing from central Florida that the mayors are getting together talking about what they can do, I’m hearing that the (metropolitan planning organizations) are talking about what they can, I’m hearing that Chambers of Commerce in Miami and other places are talking about what they can do…so there’s a lot of efforts going on,” she said.

Dockery, R-Lakeland, said rail supporters were scrambling because they remember how quickly Florida received additional rail money that was turned down by newly-elected Republican governors in Ohio and Wisconsin. Dockery said she had heard that LaHood was going to give Florida’s rail money away by Friday unless a plan B to Scott changing his mind emerged.

“I’m hoping that Secretary LaHood will give us a little bit of time and not give Florida’s money away so quickly,” she said. “I think there’s a very good chance because Florida’s high speed rail system was going to be the premier one in the country that was truly high speed rail on a dedicated track, whereas most of these other projects were just incremental high speed rail. This was kind of the showcase project nationally.”

Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich indicated Thursday that her 12-member caucus would be willing to participate in any legislative effort to create an end-run around Scott on rail. That would likely be necessary because some of the most conservative Republicans in the Legislature are either opposed to rail or to the federal economic stimulus package that provided the money in the first place.

“We certainly will be discussing it,” Rich said, noting that Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander has suggested that because the Legislature appropriated some money for the train, Scott may not have the legal authority to unilaterally cancel the project.

“I would agree with Sen. Alexander…and I hope that we can bring it back to the legislative process,” she said. “The congressional delegation, Republicans and Democrats alike, worked so hard to get this money. It wasn’t a partisan issue. It’s an issue for Floridians.”

Thursday morning, Alexander downplayed the idea of going around Scott, saying “the governor is clear he doesn’t want to move forward.”

But in the immediate aftermath of Scott’s announcement Wednesday that he was rejecting the rail money, Alexander made clear he had questions about the new governor’s legal ability to do so.

“There is this pesky thing called a constitution that limits authority,” Alexander told reporters. “I still believe the genius of America isn’t just democracy but its divided government and limitations on each individual’s ability to act unilaterally.”

Alexander made clear that he was not necessarily in favor of the train and he did not sign Dockery’s letter Thursday.

But “the concerns are more process than result,” he said.

“All of us have had serious concerns about whether it really makes sense for our state and out nation to undertake the project,” Alexander said after Scott’s announcement. He said he would have liked to have seen whether private companies were willing to come forward and make up the difference between the federal award and the expected cost.

“I would have liked to have seen the (private sector) bids come in and see where we really stand,” Alexander said.

Meanwhile, some of the biggest non-legislative proponents of the train continued to sharply criticize Scott’s decision as they cheer efforts to work around it.

“At least today I’m not using four letter words,” said Rich Templin, vice-president of one of the state’s largest labor unions, the AFL-CIO, which said it backed the idea because it believes the construction and the train would create jobs. “This is a tragedy, a disaster of unmitigated proportions.”

-END-
2/17/11

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