February 18, 2011

Tea parties are brewin’ for fight over SunRail 'boondoggle'

The conservatives who call themselves tea party activists are overjoyed that Gov. Rick Scott smacked down President Obama’s $2.4 billion plan to help build a high-speed rail line from Tampa to Orlando. And Senate President Mike Haridopolos’ decision to back Scott and buck his own voting record and senate made it all the sweeter.

But the tea party folks aren’t done.

Tea party conservatives also want the state to scuttle the proposed Central Florida passenger-rail system known as SunRail, a pet project of Winter Park Republican Dean Cannon, the speaker of the Florida House who’s a zealous defender of the home-town project.

Cannon today said he backed Scott, but sources say he’s trying to make sure his home-town bacon doesn’t get thrown into the fire.

Some Republicans and tea party folks say SunRail is as big or bigger a boondoggle than high-speed rail.

 It costs almost as much as the proposed bullet train -- about $2.7 billion – and each would carry about the same number of passengers yearly, about 3 million. But SunRail requires more state and local money -- $1.4 billion – than high-speed rail, which could cost the state treasury about $300 million. And bullet-train backers say the private industry might pick up the tab. (handy-dandy side-by-side is here Download Sun&HSR) 

Continue reading "Tea parties are brewin’ for fight over SunRail 'boondoggle'" »

George LeMieux standing by his rail stance

Count former Sen. George LeMieux as the only one of the only big-name Republican Senate hopefuls who isn't reversing course over his previous support of high-speed rail.

LeMieux's central point: Rejected federal money that has already been budgeted is simply giving spent money to someone else. Here's his statement:

“Washington spending is beyond out-of-control.  When I was in the U.S. Senate, I worked day and night to roll back spending, and that effort has to continue even more aggressively now.  But there’s an important difference between dealing with new spending and dealing with money that has literally already been appropriated.  Congress has, for its purposes, already spent the high speed rail money.  The only remaining issue is whether it comes to Florida or goes to California or New York.  Rejecting this money will do nothing to lower our debt.  It will only send transportation funds to another state.”

 “I believe to promote business and create jobs in Florida we need to increase our transportation capacity.  Florida’s size, multiple city centers, and poor intra-state air travel, make doing business in this state a challenge.  High speed rail, done right, could be the answer to that problem.  I understand the Governor’s concern of putting state government on the hook for hundreds of millions in continuing obligations.  I would seek a public-private partnership to alleviate that concern.”


Adam Hasner on why he no longer backs high-speed rail

Former House Republican leader Adam Hasner spoke glowingly of high-speed rail and commuter rail in December 2009 when the Republican leadership used the lure of federal bullet train money to garner support for Central Florida's local rail proposal, SunRail.

But now that Gov. Rick Scott suddenly called for a rejection of high-speed rail money, Hasner is all for that as well. So is Senate President Mike Haridopolos, a friend and fellow Republican who might face him in the U.S. Senate primary.

So what gives?

Times changed, Hasner said. And so did the state's financial picture.

"The reality is, if we don't have the money, we don't have the money," Hasner said. "Governor Scott did the right thing by looking at out-year budgets, realizing we don't have the money and rejecting it."

But it's not like the state was in great shape in 2009. In December of that year, lawmakers had just finished cutting the general-revenue budget, raising taxes and accepting President Obama's stimulus money to help keep the budget afloat. Many also knew that, the following session (2010), they'd have more shortfalls to deal with, which they did.

Anyway, contrast Hasner's current sentiment with this passage from a Dec. 5, 2009 South Florida Sun-Sentinel story that Democrats are making much of:

A network of bullet trains connecting urban centers would take a strong financial commitment and years, if not decades, to develop. But with reliable, fast trains, supporters say, Floridians could be coaxed from their cars and off the roads.

The aim is to "think beyond the next election and think about what we want Florida to look like 10, 20 years from now," said House Majority Leader Adam Hasner, R-Boca Raton. "Making a decision today is not about an overnight success; it's about how we want Florida to look in the future."


February 17, 2011

26 Florida Senators rebuke Rick Scott over bullet train

A veto-proof majority of the Florida Senate rebuked Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday in a letter that urged the federal government to give the state $2.4 billion in high-speed rail money that Scott wants to reject.

“Politics should have no place in the future of Florida’s transportation, as evidenced by this letter of bipartisan support,” said the letter, signed by 26 members of the Republican-controlled Florida Senate.

“This project would create real jobs, cleaner and smarter transportation and true economic development for Floridians,” said the letter written to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

The letter was partly authored by one of Scott’s first senate backers, Republican Paula Dockery of Lakeland, who argued that the newly created Florida Rail Enterprise could act independently of Scott because the state’s share of the rail money -- $300 million – was already approved last year by a previous governor, Charlie Crist.

Scott shocked legislators by unexpectedly announcing he would reject the money and then doubled-down Thursday by calling bullet train a “boondoggle.” He cited findings from the Libertarian Reason Foundation that questioned the ridership projections for the Tampa-Orlando rail line.

Dockery said the study was “inaccurate.” Echoing other Senators, Dockery said the state would be foolish to turn down the federal money to create a “premier” rail line.

“This was going to be a model for the nation,” Dockery said.

Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos didn’t sign the letter, which is the first sign that the new governor has met the limits of his authority.

“I was never a big supporter of high-speed rail,” said Haridopolos, who nevertheless voted for the rail-legislation package in December 2009.

One of Haridopolos' top lieutenants did sign Dockery’s letter: Senate Republican leader Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, who pushed the rail legislation more than a year ago.

“We’re just saying slow this down, don’t give away this money just yet,” Gardiner said. He also noted that the executive and legislative branches of government clash from time to time, pointing out that former Senate President Toni Jennings once sued former Gov. Jeb Bush over the budget. Bush later tapped her to become his lieutenant governor.

Gardiner referred questions about the legality of Scott’s rejection of federal money to Sen. David Simmons, whom he described as the “brains” of the senate. Simmons helped write the letter along with Dockery and Sen. Thad Altman.

“The bottom line is that he can’t reject this money: It was already approved by another Legislature and another governor,” said Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs. “It’s like trying to veto a bill after it becomes law. It’s too late.”

Simmons said it also made no sense to allow other states to get what he says is the state’s fair share of federal money.

“This is like holding a gun to our heads and telling the federal government: Don’t give us this money or we’ll blow our brains out,” Simmons said.

The number of senators, 26, is a significant number in that it sends Scott a subtle message: The Florida Senate could over-ride a future veto of rail money.

Other senators said they also didn't like the fact that Scott decided to reverse a decision of the Legislature without giving lawmakers a heads up.

"This is a sign: Talk to us first," said Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker.

One senator, who didn't want to be identified, was more blunt about Scott: "Is he f**#!ng crazy?"

Download 2-17-11 Letter to LaHood from Florida Senators

February 16, 2011

Ring laments the negative message Scott's decision sends to investors

Sen. Jeremy Ring, a Lauderdale Lakes Democrat and one of the founders of Yahoo.com, said Gov. Rick Scott's decision to cancel the high speed rail will send a negative message to venture capitalists considering whether to invest in Florida.

"Rarely do you use Florida and innovation in the same sentence and this had a chance to bring us into a 21st Century economy,'' Ring said. "All it does is take us back to the 20th Century economy which collapsed on us and it's not coming back. We've got 400,000 vacant homes in this state and unless we innovate we're not going to compete on a global scale. We keep using the word jobs. It's not about jobs initially; it's about creating an environment for jobs and wealth and opportunity. This put us on the map to really be an innovative leader nationally and globally. This sets us way back.''

"We're not going to be viewed as economic leader with these kinds of decisions. Who would invest in our state?"

Continue reading "Ring laments the negative message Scott's decision sends to investors" »

Alexander warns that gov can't unilaterally kill rail project; Dockery is disappointed; Altman calls it 'tragic'

Legislative reaction continues to be swift to Gov. Rick Scott's decision to reject $2.4 billion in federal money, cancel bids, and kill the high speed rail project legislators voted to pursue last year.

Senate budget chairman J.D. Alexander said he was told of the governor's announcement via a text message but warned that the governor doesn't have the authority to unilaterally cancel the project.

"The Constitution doesn't allow the governor to not-spend appropriations funds" and there is $300 million appropriated in the budget to put into development of the rail line between Orlando and Tampa, Alexander said.

He said he agrees there is widespread doubt as to whether the project would have succeeded in drawing enough riders. "I think the governor is making the right choice on this rail system,'' he said."I personally would like to have seen the bids come in to see where they really were."

Continue reading "Alexander warns that gov can't unilaterally kill rail project; Dockery is disappointed; Altman calls it 'tragic'" »

October 25, 2010

Florida to get nearly a billion dollars more in high speed rail dollars

From Bill Nelson's office: "The U.S. Department of Transportation will award $800 million more to Florida to build a high-speed rail line slated to run from Tampa to Orlando.

"The announcement came today from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood during a phone call with U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.

"The additional $800 million comes on top of $1.25 billion President Obama announced in January the state would receive for the Tampa to Orlando stretch. The award means Florida only needs approximately $300 million more from the federal government in addition to the state’s share of funding to complete the $2.6 billion project. The remaining federal funds could come next year.

 "This is fantastic news for Florida," Nelson said. "This will ensure the state remains full speed ahead with high-speed rail construction. As I’ve said many times, high-speed rail will be a game changer for Florida’s economy, along the likes of the Interstate system and Disney.

DOT also notified Congress Monday of its intent to award an $8 million planning grant for the proposed high-speed rail line between Orlando and Miami.

August 19, 2010

Dockery: I told you Amtrak would derail C$X deal

In a letter to legislators Thursday, Sen. Paula Dockery sent her colleagues a great big "I told you so,'' about their rush to approve the CSX/Sunrail deal. They failed to first clear up issues Amtrak had with the Florida Department of Transportation last fall, and that's led to the delay. 

"Now, ten months later, at the end of August 2010, the $641 million taxpayer-funded purchase of 61.5 miles of track from CSX has not been completed because the concerns that were brought to FDOT’s attention last November have still not been resolved,'' Dockery wrote in her scolding letter. She lambasted local Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and other officials who wrote off the Amtrak concerns as "no big deal." Download Amtrak November 2009 letter

"I’d say that Amtrak’s concern was a “big deal” and that the tens of thousands of dollars spent on the Special Session is just another example of government waste, as this issue could have been dealt with during the regular 2010 Session, at no additional cost to the citizens of the State of Florida,'' she wrote. Download Amtrak Letter 2-22-10

The Orlando Sentinel wrote about the Amtrak-prompted delay on Thursday and quoted Orlando Sen. Andy Gardiner as saying the Legislature may have to step in to resolve the stand off that is stalling the first phase of the project. More fodder for another Dockery "told you so."

Here's Dockery's letter to lawmakers:

Continue reading "Dockery: I told you Amtrak would derail C$X deal" »

February 08, 2010

February 05, 2010

IG report: No wrongdoing with 'pancake' e-mails

Florida Transportation Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos was cleared Friday of allegations that she skirted state public records laws in a series of unusual e-mail exchanges with a co-worker.

A 24-page report by Gov. Charlie Crist's chief inspector general said Kopelousos and a top aide were not using "code words" when they sent e-mails with subjects such as "pancake" and "French Toast."

The report also said an employee's error caused a delay in sending a state senator 8,000 e-mails in response to a public records request.

Kopelousos told investigators that no employee tried to subvert public records laws. She added, "At the end of the day, I'm responsible. Period. Whatever decisions are made at that agency, I am responsible." (Full story is here)