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[UPDATE] Building a Track Around the Governor

By: The News Service of Florida; Whitney Ray Email
By: The News Service of Florida; Whitney Ray Email

[UPDATE] 2-18 8:30AM --

Scott Doesn't Like Idea of Rail End-Run --

As talk swirled Thursday that lawmakers and local leaders were looking for ways to accept $2.4 billion in federal money for high speed rail in Florida without his approval, Gov. Rick Scott said he did not think it was a good idea for the money to be given to municipal governments in central Florida. A veto-proof majority of 26 members of the Florida Senate said Thursday that two rail panels they created, the Statewide Passenger Rail Commission and the Florida Rail Enterprise, had the legal authority to accept the money. The architect of that message, Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, also said that local mayors, metropolitan planning organizations and chambers of commerce were also considering their options for asking for the money Scott said Wednesday he did not want. But even as he experienced the first real pushback from lawmakers of his nascent administration, Scott maintained Thursday he made the right decision and said it would not be a good idea for local municipalities who want the money to go around him. “I don’t believe that we should be trying to push our counties into taking an irresponsible act of taking the risk of a high speed rail project,” he told reporters after visiting the Florida Lottery Thursday. Rail backers were scrambling to find an alternative to the state accepting the money because they were worried federal transportation officials would give the cash to other states, as it did for Florida when other governor turned down the funds. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Thursday he would give Florida a week to come up with a new plan.
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[UPDATE] 2-18 8:30AM --

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."

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Tallahassee, FL - Whitney Ray

State lawmakers say Governor Rick Scott is overstepping his authority by turning down federal money for high speed rail.

“There’s a proper process that stays within the constitution that I think is important,” said State Senator JD Alexander.

They wanted a say so, and could in fact fund rail in their budget, but for now they’re standing down because a veto would be a certainty.

“I don’t believe the votes are in the Florida legislature to override the governor,” said State Senator Mike Fasano.

With this announcement Wednesday…

“Today I’m announcing my decision to reject the Obama’s Administration’s plan to partially fund the costly Tampa to Orlando high speed rail project,” said Rick Scott Wednesday.

The money grab began. Now California and New York want the 2.4 Billion dollars the feds wanted to give to Florida for a rail system from Orlando to Tampa… but other Florida officials say not so fast.

Some members of Florida’s Congressional Delegation say the governor is on the wrong side of the tracks. They’re working with the US Department of Transportation to see if they can go around the governor. Sen. Bill Nelson is leading the charge.

“We can not afford to let this opportunity pass us by,” said Nelson.

Tampa and South Florida government organizations are willing to oversee the project. Consumer Groups are supporting his efforts.

“It was a good deal. The federal government was going to cover 90 percent of the cost. Other states that turned away the federal money didn’t’ have that same deal,” said Brad Ashwell with Florida PIRG.

If an agreement isn’t reached soon, the train will leave the tracks without Florida… and the 2.4 billion federal dollars will create thousand of jobs in another state.

This afternoon a letter signed by 26 Florida Senators was sent to US DOT Secretary Ray LaHood. The letter asks him to work with the Florida Statewide Passenger Rail Commission to bring the project to Florida. The commission was created by the legislature in 2009.


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