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Rick Scott Hands Back High Speed Rail Money

Florida Governor Rick Scott returned $2.4 billion in high speed rail money, which would have gone to completing the first HSR spur in the nation, between Tampa and Orlando in the center of the state.

Scott said he was punting on the cash in a hastily called press conference where the governor denounced Obama’s budget over its deficit spending.

“You don’t have to be an economics expert to know when you spend more money than you take in you will fail,” Scott said, saying ridership studies were overstated.

“Rather than investing in a high-risk rail project we should be focusing on improving our ports, rail and highway infrastructure,” Scott said in prepared remarks.

You can read Scott’s explanation at the link, which follows the familiar path of claiming unrealistic ridership estimates and projected cost overruns.

The last two states that rejected high speed rail money were Wisconsin and Ohio, also taken over by right-wing governors last year. Rather than return the money to the federal Treasury, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood simply redistributed it to other states that welcomed the investment. California will stand to gain a lot of that $2.4 billion; at this rate, the state’s high speed rail program could get paid off entirely by the feds. Obviously this isn’t a durable solution for the future, but any state seeking a high speed rail system could use the funds at this point, so the money will just be shifted to other states. It’s Florida’s loss. And when they whine about not getting their “fair share from Washington,” they ought to remember that their governor sent back $2.4 billion.

Meanwhile, it ought to be recognized that not all governors elected in 2010 are tea party stand-ins, and some are perfectly willing to address budget difficulties in a balanced way. Like Dan Malloy in Connecticut:

“It’s what’s right for my state,” he said. “Connecticut would not be Connecticut if we cut $3.5 billion out of the budget. We are a strong, generous, hopeful people. We’d be taking $800 million out of education. You can’t do that in this state. You’d have to gouge the Medicaid system. You’d have to close 25 percent of the nursing homes. What do you do with people?”

Nor is he shy about trying to avoid public-sector layoffs, which would result in the opposite of a stimulus, he has said, since teachers and clerks spend most of what they earn.

“I’m not sure that some governors just don’t want to lay off people for the sake of laying off people and being able to say they did,” he said, speaking of those who may have their sights on seeking national office, say in 2016. “I think there’s a certain collection of merit badges that’s going on here.”

Or Mark Dayton in Minnesota:

While many of the nation’s governors are proposing budgets that suggest anything but a tax increase, Gov. Mark Dayton of Minnesota on Tuesday advocated for higher taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents.

Mr. Dayton, a Democrat elected in November, had campaigned on an explicit promise to raise taxes on the richest Minnesotans and said his budget proposal for the next two years amounted to a fulfillment of that pledge.

Not every state is led by a Tea Partier. And if they want to give up their rail money, I’m sure there are some states who will gladly take it, and the jobs that come along with it.

UPDATE: Ray LaHood responds:

We are extremely disappointed by Governor Rick Scott’s decision to walk away from the job creating and economic development benefits of high speed rail in Florida. We worked with the governor to make sure we eliminated all financial risk for the state, instead requiring private businesses competing for the project to assume cost overruns and operating expenses. It is projects like these that will help America out-build our global competitors and lay the foundation needed to win the future. This project could have supported thousands of good-paying jobs for Floridians and helped grow Florida businesses, all while alleviating congestion on Florida’s highways. Nevertheless, there is overwhelming demand for high speed rail in other states that are enthusiastic to receive Florida’s funding and the economic benefits it can deliver, such as manufacturing and construction jobs, as well as private development along its corridors.

Scott didn’t want the money because high speed rail sounds all European and liberal. Other states don’t have such a mental block.

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David Dayen

David Dayen