TALLAHASSEE — A special lawmaking session on passenger rail projects opened Thursday with a Republican senator abandoning his support and critics firing off objections that could foreshadow more trouble ahead.
With a close vote anticipated in the 40-member Senate, Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis, announced he no longer supports the legislation after learning it would allow bullet trains throughout the state, the very purpose of this special session.
"I'm not being given the opportunity to support the bill we had the past two sessions," Baker said. "This is an entirely different bill."
Baker was a yes vote in the spring, but now faces a Republican primary in his race for agriculture commissioner and many voters are fiscal conservatives skeptical of government spending. Baker said he still supports provisions calling for Central Florida's new SunRail commuter line and more money for South Florida's Tri-Rail system.
In another surprise, a family feud between two Republican Polk County lawmakers further threatens prospects for passage.
Rep. Baxter Troutman, R-Winter Haven, said he would abstain from voting because his family owns a warehousing and distribution company, Phoenix Industries, that has "unique and dedicated service offerings with CSX." That private rail company could receive about $600 million for use of its 61-mile track bed for SunRail.
By announcing his abstention, Troutman put pressure on Republican Sen. J.D. Alexander, his estranged cousin who heads Phoenix Industries, to also abstain. A key backer of the SunRail deal, Alexander's vote is more crucial than ever because of Baker's defection.
Alexander said the Senate counsel concluded it's not a conflict of interest, but he has asked for a second opinion out of "an abundance of caution."
Troutman said it's a conflict to profit one cent from the CSX deal, and noted the legal troubles of former House Speaker Ray Sansom of Destin, who was indicted over state budget dealings involving a college that briefly employed him.
"This could be a conflict of interest," Troutman said. "Ray Sansom: Need I say more?"
The Senate also might lose a yes vote from Larcenia Bullard, D-Miami, who was ill Thursday and might not be in Tallahassee for the final vote.
Debate quickly became polarized on the session's first day with nearly one-third of legislators absent. Supporters said rail projects would spur hundreds of thousands of new jobs and ease traffic congestion, while opponents disputed job numbers and said the price tag is too high.
All told, the CSX deal could cost more than $1 billion. Tri-Rail would get an extra $15 million a year.
Gov. Charlie Crist sought to pressure reluctant lawmakers, saying it would be "catastrophic and indefensible" for them not to support the rail projects.
The weeklong session is needed, Crist and others say, to send President Barack Obama's administration a clear signal by year's end that Florida is serious about a long-range rail policy. That, they say, will bolster chances of Florida receiving some of the $3.2 billion it is seeking to finance major rail initiatives, including a high-speed train linking Tampa, Orlando and Miami, and another rail initiative along the Florida East Coast rail line.
Crist, who has backed away from Obama's stimulus package, reversed course again, saying the state must approve the rail deal in hopes of winning the federal cash.
"I don't care where the money comes from," Crist said.
The Tri-Rail component is politically important because Republican Senate leaders may need votes of several South Florida Democrats to gain the crucial 21 votes. Acknowledging past controversy surrounding SunRail in Central Florida, senators sought to re-cast the issue in terms of a statewide rail policy and creating new jobs.
After five hours of testimony and debate, a bipartisan House council passed the rail legislation 12-0 to set up floor debate today. Republicans and Democrats alike cited the need to connect Florida's urban areas, and to stop reliance on adding more lanes of traffic on gridlocked expressways.
The House discussion centered on the possibility that 138 unionized CSX signal and maintenance workers could lose their jobs under the SunRail deal. But under a labor agreement, those workers must be assured of keeping their salaries for six years, even if they are moved to lower-paying jobs or are unemployed.
The House is expected to pass the rail legislation by Monday and send it to the Senate, where debate is expected to be contentious as it has been the past two years, with the outcome far from assured.
Tea Party members are organizing a protest outside the Capitol on Monday, calling the project a "boondoggle." On the same day, U.S. Sen. George LeMieux is expected in town to lobby for the bill's passage.
He'll have a tough time in the Florida Senate, where the best-informed senator on rail issues happens to be the biggest opponent. For two years, Lakeland Sen. Paula Dockery has killed the commuter project with skillful questions about its cost and taxpayers' accident liability.
Legislative leaders persuaded CSX to accept more liability, but Dockery says it's not enough.
Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, said blue-collar workers won't support a deal that doesn't help them.
"People are feeling two emotions: fear and anger," Storms said, "and when they find out about this, they'll be angry."
Times/Herald staff writer Lee Logan contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.