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Nancy Smith

Risky High-Speed Rail + Failed Stimulus Program = Bad Deal for Florida

February 20, 2011 - 6:00pm

Tallahassee or Washington, they both share the same nutty, inside-the-Beltway-logic:

When you're in a hole, keep digging.

The country is flat broke. It's borrowing money -- make that more money -- to pay for President Barack Obama's sea-to-shining-sea, high-speed rail fantasy. Just because the money "is out there anyway," just because if Florida doesn't take it someone else will, does that mean the governor and the principled leadership in the Florida Legislature should help him keep digging America in deeper?

Whatever you think of Gov. Rick Scott's decisions so far, you have to admit the man is the real deal. He's keeping his campaign promises. He's going after exactly the things he said he would, and in the way he said he would. Nothing alters his focus.

When he was running for office he pledged an end to the state's dependence on a stimulus fix he believes is destroying America. He said he wants to create permanent jobs by bringing in new businesses and growing existing ones. He wants to lower taxes, end the regulations strangling business growth, balance the state budget and assure Florida of a better future than it has a present.

And, oh, yes. He promised to consider a high-speed rail plan if it were right for Florida and could be paid for without tax dollars. That's a big "if."

Well, he considered it and on three points turned it down. He concluded an Orlando-to-Tampa high-speed rail line is a bad risk for Floridians: Its cost to taxpayers, even bringing in private companies, could approach $3 billion; ridership and revenue projections look to be overly optimistic; and if the federal government decides to shut the project down, the state will have to return the $2.4 billion.

Scott was toast the minute he made the "no high-speed rail" announcement.

The press corps launched into a full-fledged feeding frenzy. Legislators' first instinct was to circle the wagons and say nothing. And high-powered agencies hoping to connect their clients to a slice of the $3 billion rail pie "restrategized" behind closed doors.

Mind you, none of this phased Rick Scott, who most of last week was in his airplane flying somewhere or primping for an interview on national television.

By some accounts -- though not by mine -- his decision to turn down $2.4 billion was courageous. Despite the bad reporting he had to endure, I didn't, I don't, see Scott's decision as a particularly courageous act. For this governor, for the Rick Scott we've watched for nearly 10 months, thumbing his nose at the feds' stimulus money was a natural. It was in character. It was the shoe that fit his Cinderella foot.

More bizarre would have been hearing him accept the feds' money, the risk and rail-building jobs that might not go to Florida contractors and might not make a dent in the state's 12 percent unemployment figure.

Neither was U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio's condemnation of the rail money particularly brave. "This country, this year, will borrow $1.4 trillion to run its affairs," Rubio said Friday. "I cannot go around railing against deficits and debt, and at the same time, on the other side of my mouth, talk about all these projects I want to fund with borrowed money."

Wisely, not bravely said. Again, Rubio is simply repeating the litany of his campaign speeches. He isn't running for office, he's surrounded by admirers, he can say what he likes, what he honestly believes, without raising an eyebrow.

House Speaker Dean Cannon expressed his agreement with Scott's decision and in truth, he ought to be recognized as a hero. He's in a rough spot. Winter Park -- so near the proposed rail line -- is the seat of his district. Though he's been cautious and deliberate in declaring himself, it had to take some guts for the speaker to defend support for Scott's decision to his out-of-work constituents. He may be entirely forgiven if he can sell SunRail to the governor.

The real courage, in my opinion, came from Senate President Mike Haridopolos, a Republican running for U.S. Senate in 2012 against a veteran Democratic opponent, Sen. Bill Nelson. And, at the behest of the Obama administration, Nelson has been selling the high-speed rail project like a carnival snake-oil salesman ever since the president rolled it out.

Haridopolos had been in favor of the Tampa-Orlando rail line two years ago. He risked hearing cries of "flip-flopper" -- but they would be accusations that carry little weight, as far as I'm concerned. Two years ago America wasn't expected to go in the hole to finance the project.

Said Haridopolos in his Friday announcement, The federal government has earmarked $2.4 billion to finance part of the cost of construction of the proposed Florida high-speed rail project. But to do so, Washington would borrow 100 percent of that money, which would be financed in large part by foreign, nondemocratic governments.

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. For the good of the nation, it's time to change course," he said.

Haridopolos spoke as his own man. He left Scott out of the rationale. His was generally a message that spoke of a promise kept to all Floridians.

From the beginning, I have made it clear that Florida will cut $3.62 billion in spending this year and balance its state budget without raising taxes," he said. "We will not finance our future. We have also said that under no circumstances would we use state dollars, needed to support priorities like education, to pay for high-speed rail. For Floridians, that would be unforgivable.

It seems to me Haridopolos' politics are not so far removed from the politics of tea-party-style fiscal conservatives all across Florida. I don't like giving them labels. But these are the people who turned out for town hall meetings and tax rallies. They're largely ordinary citizens who figured out that the status quo in Tallahassee and Washington works against them. These folks want their legislators, above all, serving as guardians of the taxpayer dollar. Haridopolos looks to be their man.

At the other end of the scale, this week's zeroes, are the 26 "bipartisan" rail-infatuated state senators, a veto-proof majority, who sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood begging for a week to overturn Gov. Rick Scott's decision to pass up the $2.4 billion. Half of them play on the same team as Scott, Haridopolos and Cannon.

It's understandable that the Democrats would sign. Obama's team is pressing for an overturn. But the Republicans are doing themselves and their constituents no good at all to buck the governor and the leadership in the Legislature. The letter, after all, with Republican Sen. Paula Dockery leading the charge, questions the governor's consitutional authority to turn back the federal money. Ouch.

Will other Republicans question the reasons why their colleagues signed? Are there conflicts of interest afoot? Are any of them planning a 2012 run for higher office in Central Florida -- in or near the "rail district"?

Payback's an itch, watch for it, "bipartisan" Republicans. Personally, I think more than a few of you are going to wish you had steered clear of the LaHood letter -- which, by the way, is here in the clickable attachment below, complete with all senators' signatures for you to inspect.

We'll see what happens in a week. That's the time LaHood has given Florida to come up with a way for the state to accept the stimulus. After that, the money probably shifts to bottomless pits in California or New York.


Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at (850) 727-0859.

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