What's the difference between a public servant and a politician?
This can be a blurry line, so we're lucky to have a local figure who shows us the distinction so neatly.
Remember Sheriff Richard Nugent? That guy was a public servant. Ran a professional, competent department. About the only gripe about him was that he was a little loose with our cash. Ten years in office and his department's budget more than doubled.
U.S. Rep. Nugent, on the other hand, is a politician, by which I mean, specifically, the career-first, people-second kind. Last week, for example, Nugent applauded the governor for saying no thanks, we in Florida with our 12 percent unemployment rate can get along just fine without a $2.4 billion federal investment in high-speed rail.
I get it, in a way. After all, in Nugent's district, nobody is going to beat him from the left. Plus, among congressional freshmen, this kind of talk just makes him part of the radical in-crowd. Still, knowing the old Nugent, seeing this in writing is kind of a shock.
"Florida is desperately short on money because the federal government takes such an enormous share of Americans' paychecks that there is little left for the states' basic responsibilities," Nugent said in a release from his Washington office.
Well, really, the state is short of money because it never had a rational tax policy that could insulate it from wild swings in the economy. Also, its leaders embraced real estate speculation that made this last swing extra wild.
"The president's goal of spending $53 billion on a national high-speed rail network is the epitome of 'it would be nice to have' spending … we certainly don't have tens of billions in extra money for 'nice to have' projects," Nugent said.
True enough. But this kind of makes it sounds as though "nice to have spending" is the problem. It's not. The problem is entitlement programs, and the only recent control on these is the health care reform bill. It doesn't do enough, but the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says it will cut the deficit by $143 billion over the next decade.
Nugent voted to repeal it. Too much government, he said.
Also, is a high-speed train from Tampa just nice to have? Probably, if it stopped in Orlando, which is what this particular round of federal money would have paid for (and, hopefully, still might). But what if it connected to Miami and Jacksonville, which is a definite possibility, and then, maybe, points beyond? What if you could catch one of the express buses planned to run from Brooksville, take it to Tampa, and then catch a train to New York or Atlanta? What if urban areas sprouted up along these transportation lines, which some people think is the only real long-term answer to controlling Florida's sprawl.
Then rail doesn't seem nice to have. It seems like what the state needs so as not to be doomed as a backwater, to avoid being left behind by more forward-thinking regions. Which leads to the last part of Nugent's statement that he hopes "the money is used to pay down part of our $14 trillion national debt."
It won't be. It will go to states that are prepared to grab our share, that have leaders who recognize the need to make long-term investment for the public good. You know, like our old sheriff.