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Gov. Bush hints at veto of rail cash

(The following article by Scott Powers was posted on the Orlando Sentinelís website on June 19.)

ORLANDO -- Gov. Jeb Bush may be about to derail a proposed high-speed train linking Orlando and Tampa that voters approved three years ago.

The governor has never liked the idea of the bullet train and has long threatened to veto planning money for the 125 mph railroad. A new e-mail exchange with one lawmaker suggests he's ready to do so.

If Bush uses a line-item veto to remove $7.2 million earmarked for high-speed rail planning next year, the train could be out of business for good, said Frederick Dudley, chairman of the Florida High Speed Rail Authority.

Bush plans to sign the state budget, with line-item vetoes, next week.

The bullet train could cost $2.2 billion to link Orlando and Tampa by 2009, and 10 times that much to eventually connect other Florida cities.

Florida already has spent $20 million on planning. Last year Bush threatened to veto future money specifically because of a broad, train-related tax exemption he wanted removed from state law. The exemption was not removed during this year's legislative session.

"I am known for keeping my word, even when it is not popular," Bush wrote in an e-mail Tuesday night to state Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, whose husband C.C. "Doc" Dockery has been the train's leading champion. "So, I guess you know what I will do."

Bush and his office would not comment Wednesday, except to refer to a letter he sent on April 11, 2002, to then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris. In it, Bush called the tax exemption "troublesome" because it would extend to "associated development" such as restaurants and hotels.

"I pledge to veto every dollar of high-speed rail money in next year's budget unless this ominous tax exemption is removed next regular session," he wrote to Harris.

The exemption, approved by the Legislature in 2002, was aimed at spurring public-private partnerships in the rail project by waiving all local and state taxes for the authority, its agents or the owners of the rail related property.

A veto of train money could cause a state constitutional crisis.

Florida voters ordered the train in 2000 when they approved a state constitutional amendment. It requires Florida to finish planning and sign construction contracts for the first leg by late this year. With a veto, the authority's planning and operational money runs out July 1, long before that is possible.

Nazih Haddad, director of the authority, said its board must figure out what to do if the money get axed. John Bottcher, special counsel for the authority, declined to comment on legal ramifications, as did Doc Dockery.

Sen. Dockery insisted she and other pro-train lawmakers did everything they could this year to pass the tax exemption language the governor proposed, including offering a straight-forward, fix-it bill that Bush could have included in his assignments for the current special session of the Legislature.

Federal law allows rail-planning work to be interrupted for up to 12 months, but after that work has to be discarded as out of date, Dudley said.

"It would appear that the $20 million we've spent to date or are under contract to spend would go down the drain unless we could pick it up within a year, " he said.

The authority's next scheduled action promised to be a contentious one, but Dudley said it might become moot.

On Wednesday the authority plans a public hearing at Orlando International Airport to pick a preferred route into Orlando. The alternatives, roughly along either State Road 417 or along State Road 528 to Orlando International Airport, pit International Drive interests against Walt Disney World.

"If he does [veto] it early next week, we very well might find ourselves over there Wednesday conducting the last meeting of the authority," Dudley said. "If that's the case, I'm not sure how relevant our decision is Wednesday."

Thursday, June 19, 2003

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