In a nod to tea party power, Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos reversed course on a majority of state senators and his own voting record Friday by saying he supports Gov. Rick Scott's decision to refuse $2.4 billion in federal high-speed rail money.
"Florida is leading by example in keeping its fiscal house in order. We must demand the same from Washington," Haridopolos, who voted for high-speed rail in December 2009, said in a letter.
"To President Obama and all members of Congress, I say we are far better off reducing the $1.5 trillion in proposed deficit spending by this $2.4 billion than we are to build a rail project that has a questionable, at-best, economic viability," Haridopolos wrote.
Haridopolos' new stance was widely interpreted in the state Capitol as an election-season play for votes in his bid for U.S. Senate — a race that has been gripped by the politics of trains.
On the same day Haridopolos reversed course, so did another potential Republican Senate candidate, Adam Hasner, who voted for the 2009 rail legislation. But a third possible Republican candidate, former Sen. George LeMieux, stuck by his support.
Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, is the only one of the major Republicans to officially declare he's running for office.
In contrast to the Republicans, incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson is unfazed by the conservative clamor. He says Florida deserves its share of the federal money that Haridopolos says is wasteful.
Haridopolos penned his letter hours after Americans for Prosperity Florida, a tea party group, demanded Republicans back Scott, who said Wednesday that Florida should reject the federal money. Scott and tea party groups praised Haridopolos on Friday, but his new stance could complicate his relations with fellow lawmakers in the Capitol.
The day before Haridopolos issued his letter, 26 of the 39 sitting state senators wrote the U.S. Department of Transportation in opposition to Scott's refusal of federal money. Many of the signatories were Republicans, including the Senate's GOP leader, Andy Gardiner, who asked Haridopolos' permission before he signed on. The letter prompted Americans for Prosperity to e-mail its 83,000 activists, calling on them to back Scott.
"An issue like this proves the problems of being Senate president and running in a Republican primary: Your base is different. You are appealing to a different audience. Your responsibilities are different," said Nan Rich, the Senate's Democratic leader from Weston, echoing Republicans who were too nervous to speak on the record.
"Mike Haridopolos has a fine line to walk anyway as Senate president," she said. "But coupling that with trying to get the tea party to love you just adds another aspect of trouble."
Tea party conservatives also want the state to scuttle the proposed Central Florida passenger-rail system known as SunRail, a pet project of Winter Park Republican Dean Cannon, the speaker of the Florida House who's a zealous defender of the hometown project.
It costs almost as much as the proposed rail line — about $2.7 billion — and each would carry about the same number of passengers, about 3 million yearly. But SunRail requires more state and local money — $1.4 billion — than high-speed rail, which could cost the state about $300 million.
"Both of these are bad proposals. We just can't afford them," said Matthew Falconer, an activist who described SunRail as a rip-off. "If Rick Scott kills Sun Rail ... he will go from politician to folk hero."
Scott said little about SunRail on Friday. But as part of an executive order Scott signed Jan. 4 requiring that he approve any contract worth more than $1 million, $238 million in SunRail contracts are currently on hold. One, a $168 million contract to design, build and operate the system, missed a Feb. 10 deadline to maintain its guaranteed maximum price. It has been extended to later this month. Documents provided to the governor by the Department of Transportation on Jan. 13 also say this: "Delaying the execution of this contract will result in risk" that could "jeopardize the federal funding."
Over the years, the House repeatedly passed SunRail, but it died in the Senate, where Republican Paula Dockery killed it year after year by pointing out it cost too much money.
That all changed in December 2009, when Republican leaders said approving SunRail would help the state win billions in bullet train money. Partly based on those assurances, the rail legislation passed. Haridopolos voted for it and worked behind the scenes to ensure its passage.
Two of the other Republicans considering a U.S. Senate bid — U.S. Rep. Connie Mack and former state Republican House leader Hasner — lauded Scott's decision to reject rail money. Like Haridopolos, Hasner voted for the legislation in 2009. But now, he says, he supports Scott because "the money isn't there."
Everett Wilkinson, head of the South Florida Tea Party, said support of the bullet train is "a deal breaker. ... The tea party will actively target and make people aware of anyone who supports high-speed rail."
That's not much of a problem now for Sen. Nelson, who has little if anything to lose by the tea party effort. Still, the group is trying, bombarding Nelson's offices with messages opposing the Scott run-around. The messages were copied to Haridopolos in Tallahassee, a clear warning.
Nelson has seized the issue, marshaling resources to form a plan to work around Scott, and is emboldened by some Republican support for the rail project. During a news conference Thursday outside his office, Nelson eagerly greeted U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, who showed up late but added his support and expressed dismay at Scott's sudden move.
Nelson's former colleague, LeMieux, stood with the Democrat in calling for high-speed rail money. And he didn't back down this week. LeMieux said he's against "out-of-control spending" but it's too late to stop the rail money anyway.
Haridopolos disagrees, saying spending too much money will hurt the economy and, therefore, jobs. "When Gov. Scott had the courage to stand up," he said. "I wanted to make sure I stood beside him."