State Senate Looks Uncertain on Rail Proposal
It looked Thursday as if the Florida Senate will again prove a hard sell on rail issues, with members exposing a host of deep misgivings about the $2.6 billion in rail projects under consideration.
One former supporter of Central Florida's SunRail commuter train declared his opposition to the rail effort -- now that it has been expanded to include a high-speed initiative similar to one once approved then later repealed by state voters.
Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis, said he has never supported the high-speed rail effort and would defy clamoring from cities and business groups in his home region by voting against the rail package that also includes SunRail.
Baker said he expected a "Little Red Riding Hood" SunRail bill.
"But we're voting on the Big Bad Wolf bill," Baker concluded.
In a Senate thought to be virtually evenly divided on the rail package coming into the session, Thursday's opening may set a rocky tone for the weeklong session. Those opposing SunRail in the past, led by Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, seemed to show no softening and continued to quiz supporters about the project's price, which they feel overly favors the private CSX railway whose tracks will be used for the project, along with liability protections which critics say threaten state finances.
By contrast, the House seemed prepared to support the rail legislation. The House Economic Development and Community Affairs Council easily approved the bill on a unanimous vote.
Gov. Charlie Crist, meanwhile, said that he was confident the measure would pass and that it was “indefensible” to vote against it.
"I can't imagine a member of the Florida House or the Florida Senate…thinking that this isn't the right thing to do,” Crist said, championing the bill as a chance to boost the economy.
The rail package was praised as likely to foster thousands of new jobs in a lousy economy by supporters, whose main Senate backers include Sens. Jeremy Ring, D-Boca Raton, and Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.
But the two senators faced stiff questioning about their logic, given that South Florida's Tri-Rail commuter train needs at least $75 million in state help to offset operating losses and shows no sings of operating in the black.
Gaetz, though, insisted, "Jobs are created as a consequence, not the purpose of this bill."
A political subtext also emerged for Republicans when Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, likened the government-backed rail proposals as looking a lot like the bank-bailout and economic stimulus legislation pushed through Congress by the Obama administration and now ridiculed by party conservatives. In keeping with this stance, Tea Party activists say they will demonstrate at the state Capitol next week against the rail plan. Dockery, a gubernatorial candidate, is expected to speak at that rally.
“It's a train to nowhere, a boondoggle,” said Adam Guillette, a spokesman for Americans for Prosperity, and an organizer of the planned protest.
Storms said that she's mentioned to constituents that the Legislature was going into special session this week and that people assumed it would be about the economy – creating jobs or dealing with the foreclosure crisis.
"When I tell them it's about rail, they say, 'What?'' Storms said. “Trust me, no one in my district is talking about rail."