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Court: Fla. bullet train ballot item must be rewritten

(The Associated Press circulated the following article by Jackie Hallifax on August 4.)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- A November ballot paragraph that puts a price tag on Florida's high-speed rail project must be rewritten because it goes too far in describing the financial impact, the state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

On Election Day, voters will be asked if they want to repeal the constitutional amendment they approved in 2000 that requires Florida to build a high-speed rail network.

The question is back on the ballot because of a citizen initiative championed by Gov. Jeb Bush, who argues the train will be a costly boondoggle.

Like the six other citizen initiatives on the ballot this year, the train repeal measure will be accompanied by a "financial impact" statement prepared by analysts from the Legislature and governor's office.

The statement is supposed to describe how the measure will affect state and local government budgets. The state Supreme Court reviews the statements and any rejected are sent back to the panel of analysts to be revised.

After hearing both supporters and opponents of the train, the financial impact panel concluded that repealing the project could save the state from $42 billion to $51 billion over three decades.

The price also was described in average per-household savings, ranging from $4,700 to $5,700 over the 30 years, or $157 to $190 a year.

Supporters of the train argued that their testimony was ignored, and C.C. "Doc" Dockery, the Lakeland businessman who promoted the train proposal in 2000, challenged the statement in Florida's high court.

In Thursday's ruling, the Supreme Court said the use of the word "could" didn't comply with the requirement that the summary describe the "range of probable financial impacts."

The court also said the savings could not be described in perhousehold terms because the analysis was supposed to be of the impact on state and local governments.

The unsigned opinion was fully supported by four of the seven justices and partially supported by another two. Justice Charles Wells dissented.

A spokesman for the petition drive said leaders of the repeal drive considered the ruling a victory because it upheld the bottom-line cost analysis of $42 billion to $51 billion over 30 years.

"There's nothing in this ruling that changes the bottom-line savings to taxpayers," Mark Mills said.

Thom Rumberger, an attorney for Dockery, said the numbers themselves weren't an issue before the court. Rumberger said he was happy with the ruling: "You can do what you can do."

The 2000 ballot measure approved by voters ordered the state to build a high-speed train. The first leg of the proposed network will run from Orlando to Tampa. The plan is for the train to eventually connect Tampa and Orlando with Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

Wednesday, August 4, 2004

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