Rick Scott’s Refusal to Take Stimulus Money for a Train in 2011 Was His Finest Hour


Florida Democratic Party officials wouldn’t acknowledge a Rick Scott triumph if it body-slammed them off the ropes on UFC Fight Night.

So, of course, when the governor announced the state is moving forward with privately funded high-speed rail between Orlando and Tampa, the Dems couldn’t just sit in silence and let the Republican Senate candidate take credit. FDP spokesman Nate Evans had to issue a statement.

“Rick Scott had a chance to build a high speed rail line seven years ago,” said Evans, “and Floridians — especially those residents and businesses along I-4 — have paid the price of Scott’s self-serving politics. …”

Silly to criticize this Scott decision. Downright boneheaded to criticize this Scott decision.

I Beg to DifferCut it any way you like, one of the most astute, most responsible decisions Rick Scott made as governor was the one in 2011 to turn down the $2.4 billion in federal stimulus money to build an Orlando-to-Tampa high-speed rail line.

Scott measured the layers of cost to Florida against the benefits that high-speed rail presents. At the end of the process, he turned the stimulus money down for three reasons:

  • He predicted construction cost overruns would put Florida taxpayers on the hook for $3 billion.
  • He said low ridership would have required state subsidies.
  • He said the money would come with a caveat. If the project were shut down, the state would have to return the $2.4 billion to Washington.

And he also said, when somebody could come forward with a plan for a privately funded Orlando-to-Tampa rail service, he would be “all ears.”

Scott made his high-profile announcement just two days after President Obama released his federal budget, which included a $1.65 trillion deficit.

High-speed rail was once a central part of Obama’s vision for government — one in which the nation’s infrastructure, schools and health-care systems would be modernized to meet the challenges of globalization and expand the middle class.

Though the president gamely stayed the course on the whole of his vision, the grand project to create an interconnecting national network of bullet trains has been a stunning failure virtually everywhere except the most populated commuting corridors, where service doesn’t have to be built from scratch. Even with billions upon billions of dollars in stimulus cash seven years ago, high-speed rail as replacement travel was always financially unattainable.

“Government has become addicted to spending beyond its means and we cannot continue this flawed policy,” Scott said. “Let us never forget, whether it is Washington or Tallahassee, government has no resources of its own. Government can only give to us what it has previously taken from us.”

I’ve always believed that was Scott’s finest moment. It was bold direction amid a cacophony of legislator protest groups, snarky, spend-happy members of Congress and special interests in Florida hoping the stimulus money would make them rich — interests who wanted to wrest the decision away from him, even take him to court.

In the end, Florida wasn’t the only state to reject not-close-to-free “free” money for high-speed rail. Republican Govs. John Kasich of Ohio and Scott Walker of Wisconsin doomed the initiative in those states, too. Ohio and Wisconsin money went to California; more than $2 billion from Florida’s share went to 15 states and Amtrak.

We all know what a mess of graft, cost-overruns and political squabbling the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco bullet train project became over the last eight years — in a state that now is so buried in debt, its citizens are considering splitting the state in three.

Coincidentally, on the same day last week Scott announced the state’s pursuit of a privately funded, not-on-the-taxpayers’-dime Orlando-to-Tampa passenger-train service, he learned Moody’s Investors Service had just upgraded Florida’s General Obligation (GO) bond rating to Aaa.

That’s the leading international credit rating agency telling Florida it earned the highest rating possible — for the first time in the state’s history.

It really is a clear indicator of the strength of Florida’s economy and will save taxpayers money in future state interest payments.

“I am so proud of Florida’s amazing turnaround story over the past seven years,” Scott said.

Here’s what Moody’s said: “The GO upgrade reflects a sustained trend of improvement in Florida’s economy and finances, low state debt and pension ratios, and reduced near-term liability risks via the state-run insurance companies. Florida’s economy is performing strongly in terms of job growth, and long-term growth prospects are favorable despite the challenges posed by an aging population base. State finances are characterized by healthy reserves and historically strong governance practices and policies that are expected to continue. The state has also maintained consistently low debt and pension liabilities that compare well with other Aaa rated states.”

Look at California. Look at Connecticut. Try to imagine what Florida’s credit rating might be today if Scott had taken the stimulus money in 2011.

“Since December 2010, Florida’s private sector has created more than 1.5 million jobs,” Scott said last week. “Our unemployment rate has continued to drop, we’ve paid down $9 billion in state debt and we’ve made record investments in priorities that matter to families, like education and the environment. The entire country should take note.”

Could Scott have done other good things for Florida with a different kind of budget leadership? Of course. But he chose to take care of the economy first, as Floridians have shown time and again they wanted.

The results paid off.

Challenging the governor over and over on his successful measures to rebuild the state’s crumbling economy when he took office is, well, as I said earlier … boneheaded.

By dissing Scott’s decision to turn away from strings-attached stimulus money, all FDP spokesman Evans did was remind voters the Democrats really are the Party of Fiscal Wreckage.

And here’s the problem for the blue team in November: In the last seven-plus years, the vast majority of Floridians have developed a taste for fiscal restraint. All alone in the voting booth, no way will they let that ride out on a rail.

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSm