A $650-million plan to run commuter trains in Orlando narrowly survived a fractious Florida House vote Thursday.
Lawmakers voted 64-54 against an amendment by Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, that would have stripped language providing immunity from negligence lawsuits for CSX railroad when it uses the commuter line for freight travel.
CSX says it will not sell the state 61.5-miles of rail through urban Orlando without the protection. The bill (HB 1399), a large transportation package, is expected to pass the House Friday.
While the House debate dragged on, a key Senate committee approved its version of the CSX project but added lots of additional pieces, including a 25-percent toll increase on Florida's Turnpike on July 1 and the so-called "road rage" bill that would penalize drivers in the high-speed lane who don't yield for faster drivers.
Also in the Senate bill (SB 19 78) is a proposal to lease state-owned Alligator Alley to a state health care account known as the Lawton Chiles Endowment, for an estimated $500-million for 50 years, as a way of boosting the state road-building fund.
USF Lakeland may get separate accreditation
The Florida Senate voted unanimously Thursday to make the University of South Florida's fledgling Lakeland campus, dubbed USF Polytechnic, a separately accredited regional campus (SB 186).
The plan, which would be similar to the USF St. Petersburg campus' setup, is expected to be considered by the full House next week.
Meanwhile, USF officials and some lawmakers are pushing for $15-million in state money to start construction of a $200-million campus in Lakeland that they say will hold 16,000 students by 2043.
Senate okays deleting lyrics from state song
The Florida Senate unanimously agreed Thursday to remove racially offensive lyrics from the state song, while also designating a separate state anthem.
Swanee River (Old Folks at Home) would be the official state song, while the anthem would be Florida, Where the Sawgrass Meets the Sky, a tune chosen last year during a statewide contest.
The legislation (SB 1558) began as an attempt to replace Old Folks at Home, which has a chorus about "darkeys" longing for "de old plantation."
But rural lawmakers in the Senate were reluctant to do away with a tune that has been part of the state's history for seven decades.
The compromise would also remove the song's dialect, which author Stephen Foster wrote in 1851 in the voice of a black slave.
The House, however, hasn't deemed the issue a priority, making its fate uncertain.