The Nation's Pulse

Never the Train Shall Meet

Amazingly, Florida Republicans are determined to ignore all the lessons of Wisconsin.

By 2.21.11

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Recent and ongoing events in Florida and Wisconsin demonstrate how difficult it's going to be to rein in incontinent government spending, especially when it comes to lushly paid public employees and crackpot infrastructure scams.

Public employees in Wisconsin, addicted to the over-generous pay and benefits packages their unions and politician enablers have put on the backs of cheese-heads not on the government gravy-train, indulged in a very public tantrum when asked to do at least part of their share in dealing with new economic realities.

The media, big corporate, and political establishments in Florida, including way too many Republicans, were set on a roar last week when Florida Governor Rick Scott became the third Republican governor in the nation, sensibly and courageously, to say no to high-speed rail, the boondoggle's boondoggle.

Last week Scott told the Obama administration "thanks, but no thanks" to $2.4 billion in "federal money" (definition: money we don't have that has to be borrowed or printed and that future generations must pay back) to help build a 90-mile rail project to connect Orlando with Tampa, two spread-out metropolitan areas already connected by an interstate highway. The response was operatic. 

Wisconsin teachers, in the finest tradition of public employee unions, abandoned their posts, bringing many of their young charges along with them to help pitch a hissy-fit at the State House in Madison (no reports yet on whether students were offered extra credit for this activity, which is more fun than passing notes or texting friends in class).

The occasion for this self-indulgent display is a state bill requiring, among other things, that teachers make contributions to their retirement plan at a level about half that required of workers in the private sector (they pay nothing now). Their didoes are, to put it as charitably as possible, unseemly.

President Obama, with more time on his hands than you'd imagine, what with the Middle East popping rivets and the country lurching toward bankruptcy, has chosen to insert himself into the Wisconsin budget debate on the side of the local public employee unions. (TAS readers may here amuse themselves by imagining the fertilizer storm that would follow on a Republican president suggesting that unionized workers in a particular state be paid less.)

Mr. President, today's vocabulary word is federalism. You'll obviously have to look it up, as it appears nowhere in the handbooks for community organizers or teachers unions (motto: We got ours; ----you).

Not satisfied just to oppose the stringent budget and new rules for public employee unions, Wisconsin Democratic state senators, demonstrating the true spirit of the pleas from national Democrats for more hands-across-the-aisle comity in our political transactions, bugged out of the state altogether, denying the Wisconsin Senate the quorum necessary to conduct any business. (When the going gets tough, the tough go AWOL.) Perhaps the Democrats mean comedy rather than comity.

The players opposing fiscal restraint in Wisconsin are almost exclusively Democrats, who can always be counted on to defend big government, big unions, and big spending. So no surprise. It's in the natural order of things. But in Florida it's disturbing to see how many Republicans object to Scott's vetoing one of the worst transportation "investments" devised by the mind of man.

If times were flush and the country not on the brink of financial disaster, high-speed rail would be a bad idea. Today it's a horrible one. Measured by cost per passenger-mile, rail is not only the most expensive form of transportation, it's the most expensive by a multiple over everything else.

Rail projects across the country have in almost all cases: cost way more than original estimates to construct, attracted fewer riders than pre-construction estimates, generated less revenue than anticipated, did not significantly reduce road traffic congestion, did not improve the local environment, and generated large annual expenses for operation and maintenance. Expenses that taxpayers have to pick up, whether or not they take the train.

So why did a majority of members of the Florida Senate, where Republicans hold a 2-1 majority, send a letter to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood asking for time to find a way to circumvent Scott's rejection of the non-existent money? Why did the Florida delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives, 3-1 Republican, meet with LaHood in an attempt to create an entity other than the state that could receive the federal money?

The short answer is that high-speed rail is popular in Florida and elsewhere. The arguments against it, based on hardheaded economic analysis, hardly ever appear in the left-stream media. So a majority of Floridians believe high-speed rail will: create jobs and economic prosperity, eliminate or at least reduce congestion on Florida roads and highways, and improve the state's environment. These are the phantasms that rail supporters have been retailing for years. Sadly, too many Florida Republicans have decided to cover their political butts on this one instead of leading. Instead of getting Governor Scott's back on this one, they're plunging an ice pick into it.

Congressman John Mica (R-Winter Park), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, claims Scott's no-rail money decision "defies logic." He says he's cooking up a plan to save the Orlando to Tampa train set, starting with a project to connect Orlando International Airport to Disney World.

There are better ways for Mica to spend his time. If there's a great need for the Orlando airport and Disney World to be connected by rail, he might inquire why Disney hasn't done it yet, despite prospering in Florida since 1971.

But job one for Mica should be to try to torpedo the $63 billion down payment Obama wishes to make on high-speed projects across the nation. He also needs to pay more attention to the backlog of repairs necessary to the nation's highways and bridges.

Federal spending has reached World War II levels. State and local spending are at historic highs. Americans reading stories about our debt and budget projections can be excused for thinking the numbers are in lire rather than dollars. We're clearly on the road to financial ruin if we don't reverse course. But the news out of Wisconsin and Florida shows us that turning this train around ain't gonna be easy.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.