Week in Review: A Train by Any Other Name
To finally get the controversial SunRail Orlando commuter train proposal through the Florida Legislature this week, backers took great pains to not say the name of the train or the company selling the tracks it will run on.
But much like a rose that is just as sweet by any other name, a second vote of approval from the House and a surprisingly large margin in a previously hostile Senate, which denied the plan as recently as May, was music to the ears of supporters who had clamored for the train since at least 2008.
On the way to a 27-10 victory on the sweeping rail bill, leaders called a special session to approve, Senate supporters went to great lengths to downplay the plan’s SunRail provisions, which had long been the most controversial portions of the deal.
Out was talk about how approving the rail package would ease traffic in Orlando. In was talk of how approving the liability language CSX had tied to the sale of 61 miles of track for SunRail would allow partnerships between “local governments” and “private partners.”
So taboo was SunRail and CSX in the Senate after a bitter two-year fight to approve the train that when opponent Sen. Gary Siplin asked on the floor just who those governments and private companies might be, it took a group of supporters to answer.
And none of them said the magic words.
Even after the vote, Senate President Atwater only said that the bill "might well allow an existing transaction to close," focusing instead on the statewide aspects of the legislation, which also allocated about $15 million to cash-strapped Tri-Rail in south Florida and created two statewide rail panels.
To even get that far, Senate leaders had to play musical chairs with three committees on the plan’s arduous track to the chamber’s floor. The rail package barely passed its first Senate committee with the help of a last minute addition to the panel and the proposal benefited again in its third stop from a recent roster shuffle.
As the Senate Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations Committee took up the rail bill on Tuesday, outspoken rail critic Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, who had been a member of the panel earlier this year, was notably absent. Senate leaders painted the move as a previously agreed swap to a committee the bombastic senator had previously served on, but Storms and other rail opponents smelled politics as usual.
Earlier in the week, to get the bill through the Senate Transportation Committee, legislative leaders had to replace ailing Sen. Larcenia Bullard, a reliable yes vote who suffered a heart attack last week, with Sen. Mike Fasano to avoid the plan being derailed on a tie vote.
It was all a far cry from the action on the other end of the Capitol, where they weren’t whispering about SunRail. Having passed the chamber twice before, the rail package was again touted as a “transformative” action that would propel the Orlando area into the ranks of other “great cities” with commuter rail on the way to a decisive 84-25 vote.
Perhaps the only thing that slowed the train’s speed through the House, which held final votes on the plan before lunch on the week’s first day, was labor pains stemming from the Florida AFL-CIO’s staunch opposition and the opposition by some Democrats it caused. But by the time the train arrived at its scheduled next stop in the Senate, the union had dropped its opposition after getting state transportation officials and Tri-Rail officials to sign off on its demand that hundreds of union jobs be preserved now and during the future development of SunRail.
However, just as there was politics in passing the rail plan in the special session, there was politics in its aftermath. In a bit of twist, Gov. Charlie Crist tried to put his primary opponent for the U.S. Senate, Marco Rubio, on the hot seat on his silence on the rail package.
Meanwhile, the newly formed conservative Florida Tea Party steamed about the 80 House and Senate Republicans who got on board with the train bill, which activists think amounts to a government-sponsored boondoggle. The party said it would have an elephant’s memory and work to punch the retirement tickets of rail Republicans come Election Day 2010, making it clear that while the train may have finally left the Legislature’s station, its impact will continue to reverberate in Tallahassee.
However, rail supporters will now turn their eyes toward Washington, where a decision on applications for stimulus money - which spurred the special session in the first place – is expected early next year. Alongside applications for $2.6 billion for the first leg of a long-proposed Tampa-Orlando-Miami and $70 million for Atlantic Coast Amtrak service was $432 million for SunRail, though perhaps to manage expectations, Senate President Jeff Atwater cautioned after the vote that passing the rail bill did not mean stimulus dollars would automatically roll in.
That said, the rail bill's passage was already being felt in Washington. Sen. Bill Nelson's office touted it as a reason the state was being granted $40 million to "jumpstart a rail system that will serve commuters in Central Florida" by Congressional budget leaders in a broad transportation, housing and military expenditure bill.
Nelson's office said the Washington transportation bill also included $4 million for the expansion of Miami's Metrorail and $1.7 million for a proposed light rail in Tampa.
A PRESIDENTIAL HOMECOMING
Tallahassee’s other landmark institution, Florida State University, may be beginning to prepare for life after legendary football coach Bobby Bowden, but this week the school tapped its replacement for outgoing president T.K. Wetherell. Despite initial views from a trustees search committee that none of the applicants for the university's top job were good enough, National Center for Atmospheric Research Director Eric Barron was tapped as the new president of his alma mater.
Barron, 58, worked at Penn State for more than 20 years, including a stint as the Dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Science. He also served as a dean at University of Texas-Austin and began his tenure at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in 2008.
Just a week ago, the committee that picked Barron said they weren’t that impressed with the list of potential replacements for Wetherell and chose to only interview three candidates out of 26 applicants. However, Barron instantly emerged as the favorite before he landed the job this week.
Though they said they were proud to have Barron, some university trustees said they still wished they could have seen more candidates for interviews, including sitting presidents or provosts. But that was complicated by state's Sunshine laws, which requires public universities in Florida, to provide the names of candidates.
Jim Smith, chair of the trustees, said several people said they would apply only if Smith could guarantee that they would get the job, no question.
There will be plenty of questions Barron will have to answer when he assumes his new post however. He comes to Florida State at a pivotal time for the university and the state's higher education system as a whole. The state's poor finances have led to major cuts at FSU of programs and tenured faculty and the trustees made clear early on in the search process that despite the rocky Florida economy, the next president will be charged with raising $1 billion.
CHEERS FOR GREER
Another person under fire, embattled Florida Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer, perhaps got some breathing room this week when he drew a strong vote of confidence from the state party's executive board, even as a former top GOP finance official reignited the fire simmering under the party's boss by demanding that he resign.
In a move that caught several party leaders by surprise - but which also had the undercurrent of a setup -- the confidence vote was called by the party's longtime national committeeman, Paul Senft and seconded by Greer's fellow Seminole County Republican, Jim Stelling.
With little debate, the motion, along with Greer's job performance, was approved 25-2 at the GOP's quarterly meeting held in Tallahassee.
The executive board's vote of confidence was clouded by a scathing letter sent to Greer by former state and national Republican finance chairman Al Hoffman. Hoffman, a Southwest Florida builder and former ambassador to Portugal, could not be reached immediately by the News Service of Florida, but told Greer in the letter "it is time for you to resign."
Elsewhere, state Rep. Michael Scionti, D-Tampa, an army reservist who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, was named a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense by President Barack Obama this week and will be resigning his state House seat to go to Washington D.C. Later in the week, Gov. Crist selected Jan. 26 and Feb. 23 as the dates for the primary and general election to replace Scionti and candidate speculation quickly centered on Janet Rifkin, a Democratic activist in Hillsborough.
STORY OF THE WEEK: After two false starts, backers of a long-proposed SunRail commuter train in Orlando finally got the Legislature to get on board in the special session that adjourned this week. Only it wasn’t at all a bill about SunRail, to let the Senate backers tell it.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “I graduated from high school, graduated from undergrad…and graduated from law school. At some point I learned how to count and I saw the direction the vote was going, so I can see the winds are not with me right now," Sen. Ronda Storms, summing up a week that saw furious vote counting before the special session rail bill passed easily in the House, and surprisingly, the Senate.