TALLAHASSEE — A special legislative session on a controversial commuter rail project faces the threat of racial discord as African-American legislators want the session delayed so they can attend a long-planned national conference in Fort Lauderdale.
The legislative session is scheduled to begin Thursday in the Capitol, with or without the participation of many African-American legislators.
The annual conference of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators starts today with about 400 African-American legislators from across the country in attendance.
Senate President Jeff Atwater agreed to excuse African-American senators from attending the largely-ceremonial start of the legislative session Thursday. House Speaker Larry Cretul did the same, even though the House has scheduled a seven-hour meeting on the legislation, also on Thursday.
In the special session, lawmakers will vote on spending more than $1 billion to buy 61 miles of CSX rail track in Central Florida for a commuter rail project, as well as finding additional operating money for South Florida's Tri-Rail system — up to $15 million a year. The legislation also would establish rail as a major state priority, with a new rail office in the Department of Transportation.
The broader political objective is to send a signal to the Obama administration that Florida is serious about mass transit in hopes of attracting federal money for a high-speed rail venture linking Tampa, Orlando and Miami.
House Democrats, citing "urgent concerns," asked Cretul to postpone the start of the session until Monday.
"Rather than allowing the Florida House of Representatives to be admonished as exclusionary or your leadership being criticized as racially insensitive, we urge you to take action now to minimize the blowback from the scheduling mistake," Rep. Franklin Sands, D-Weston, the House Democratic leader, wrote in a letter to Cretul.
Two leading organizers of the National Black Caucus meeting are from Florida: Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, is conference chairwoman; Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Pembroke Park, is vice-chairman. He said landing the conference in Florida took two years of effort.
"It's a major deal. It's a national event," Gibbons said. "We would be embarrassed if we did not show up."
Legislative leaders put members on notice last Wednesday to prepare for the start of the session on Dec. 3. But five days passed before black lawmakers raised a scheduling conflict — a delay that concerns some Republicans.
"I don't understand why you would run for office, take the political hits, and then whine when it's time to do your job," said Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, referring to House Democrats generally.
Adding to the legislative theatrics, Democrats volunteered to cooperate with Republicans on procedural moves to speed up floor debate on the rail legislation.
But Cretul cited time constraints dictated by rules governing how swiftly bills can be heard in the House and Senate. The speaker said he would excuse lawmakers who had made a prior commitment to go to the conference, but some black lawmakers consider that an affront because it would force them to skip some legislative duties.
Adding to the tension is the fact that legislative leaders cite the need to conclude the session by noon on Dec. 11 to allow Jewish lawmakers to be home by sundown for the start of Hannukah.
Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democratic candidate for governor, entered the fray, saying Cretul's refusal to delay the session was "showing a disregard for the fact that a nationwide conference is being held in our state."
There are 19 African-American lawmakers in the 120-member House, and seven in the 40-member Senate. Republicans hold commanding majorities in both chambers, but Democratic support is viewed as crucial to passage of rail legislation, especially in the Senate, where a cluster of about a half-dozen Republicans are strongly opposed.
Atwater said he spoke to several black senators and had their personal assurances that they would make the discussion of Florida's long-range rail policy their paramount concern. He said no votes would be taken in the Senate until all members were in the Capitol.
"The issue is far too important to play games with," Atwater said. "I would want senators to feel very comfortable that they would not miss one vote."
Atwater said he felt confident he could corral the 21 votes necessary to pass the rail bill, but he declined to discuss a vote count or which senators have changed their positions since last spring, when similar legislation failed on a 23-16 vote.
Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, a skeptic on the rail project, suggested it was unwise for the Senate to call a special session without having 23 or 24 solid votes for passage.
"I've had people tell me we have 21 votes and I've had people tell me we don't have the votes," Bennett said.
Times/Herald staff writer Shannon Colavecchio contributed to this report, and information from The News Service of Florida was used. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.