A Legislator's Perspective on Rail, the Constitution, and Other Matters

By Fred and Iris Scheibl[ PRINT ]

As anyone following the process has discovered, there is friction among the branches of government in Tallahassee. When Governor Scott decided to reject the federal grant for building a high speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando, a “gang of 25” Senators were not pleased. So displeased that they wrote a letter to Obama Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, asking for more time to circumvent the Governor’s decision before “our” $2.4 billion were allocated to California or New York, or some other “rail-friendly” state.

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(Click HERE to see the letter).

District 25 Senator Ellyn Bogdanoff is one of the “gang of 25” signatories, as is district 27 Senator Lizbeth Benacquisto. Both Republicans are newly elected to that body and both were supported in various ways by South Florida 912, including a prominent recommendation on our “leader’s picks”. Since we support the Governor’s decision and rationale on high speed rail (it is a boondoggle, makes no economic sense, and will likely put the state on the hook for future subsidies), we contacted both Senators for their rationale in end-running the Governor.

Senator Benaquisto described her decision as “process related’. Although she does not support using federal funds to build the rail project, and doubts that a private sector project would be profitable, she signed on to the protest letter to protect the prerogatives of the Legislative Body. She was not in the Legislature when the original rail bill was passed (which provided funding to qualify for the federal grant), but was swayed by the argument that the actions of a previous legislative session (and previous governor) could not be unilaterally overturned by the present Governor. She also is now having second thoughts about the issue.

A Conversation with Ellyn Bogdanoff

Ellyn Bogdanoff has a nuanced view of the issue. After exchanging several emails on the subject, she offered to meet with us to better explain her position. In her view, much of the issue has been obscured by trivialized media reports and she believes the constitutional issue it engenders is larger than any discussion of high speed rail.

This afternoon, we had the opportunity to meet with the Senator at the comfortable Starbucks in the Gardens Mall. Accompanying her were legislative and political aides who were traveling with her throughout the district today.

We started our conversation in agreement – most of the coverage we read about the Legislative Session in the Palm Beach Post and Sun-Sentinel is superficial and doesn’t delve into the whole story.

As a member of the Florida House, the Senator supported Sun-Rail and the groundwork that was laid to qualify for federal transportation grants for the high speed rail projects. We don’t agree on this issue, but the Senator has been consistent. Irrespective of the underlying policy though, she views this current issue as one with constitutional ramifications.

While Senator Bogdanoff agrees with most (80-90%) of Governor Scott’s positions on issues, she believes that many of his actions since coming into office are arrogant, but more importantly, unconstitutional.

As a corporate CEO, he had the ability to take actions without necessarily consulting or deferring to other ‘bodies’. The state government on the other hand, is structured to assign separate powers to the legislative and executive bodies. The Governor, the executive body, does not have the authority to unilaterally overturn what the legislature had appropriated in past sessions. Nor does he have the ability to ‘legislate’. She referred us to an Orlando Sentinel article describing the contention between Governor Scott and the Legislature: (Click HERE for the article.)

Governor Crist did much that she considered unconstitutional as well, including the arbitrary extension of voting time during the 2008 election.

To Senator Bogdanoff, fidelity to the Florida State Constitution trumps any position on issues where she would otherwise agree with the Governor. If one ignores blatant constitutional violations when one agrees, then what happens in the future when other rights are being trampled?

She believes that we (ie. grassroots activists, South Florida 912, South Florida Tea Party) can and should remain ‘pure’ in our positions. She however, as a legislator, has to be focused on achieving ‘incremental’ wins. She has worked hard to have a leadership ‘seat at the table’ (Ellyn Bogdanoff now chairs the Budget Subcommittee on Finance and Tax) and if one behaves as a ‘bomb-thrower’, but gets nothing passed, then what is accomplished? In the give and take that her leadership role entails, if she can get 85% of what she wants, by voting for the 15% she doesn’t agree with, then she’ll do it. High speed rail was such an example – the Orlando-Tampa line was perhaps not the route she would have preferred, but she compromised to move on the larger package.

We have agreed to disagree with the Senator on high speed rail for Florida. We do not believe that the ridership projections are realistic and thus believe that any rail effort will ultimately result in requiring subsidies from the taxpayer. She believes that any private corporation agreeing to build and run the line would not do so if they didn’t think they could be profitable without subsidies.

Prior to Governor Scott’s decision, both Wisconsin and Ohio rejected similar grants. They (like us) see the entire Obama rail dream as a $57B progressive pipedream. None of these projects are likely to be profitable and will require operating subsidies to make riding them affordable. This is true of Tri-Rail and it is true with Amtrak, for which the Pew SubsidyScope Project estimates carries a subsidy of $32 for every passenger and loses money on 41 of 44 routes.

Other Topics

After our discussion of high speed rail and the separation of powers, we briefly touched on some other issues of local interest.

Key to budget restraint at the state and local level is FRS reform. The proposal as outlined by the Governor includes reduction in special-risk accrual, elimination of COLA and a 5% contribution by participants. Senator Bogdanoff considers the proposal as it stands, “dead on arrival” as there are not the votes to go that far. The bills (SB 1128 and 1130) that have been introduced by Senator Jeremy Ring (FS32), Chairman of Governmental Oversight and Accountability, are working their way through his committee, but fall short of the Scott proposal (and what is needed).

Another bill, SB1406, sponsored by Senator Bogdanoff, would introduce a 2.5 cent sales tax increase to replace the ad-valorem tax for the school systems. Although it deletes a requirement that a district school board levy the minimum millage rate necessary to provide the district’s required local effort, it does not prevent them from doing so. We suggested that this presents a double taxation case like the local Fire/Rescue sales tax proposal but she insists this is a true tax swap. She did say though to make it work, it will require an additional constitutional ballot amendment in 2012 removing school board funding from property taxes.

We ended the meeting keeping communications open. She has been willing to explain her rationale for her positions. We may not always agree on specific issues, but appreciate the Senator’s candor and openness.

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