Blessing or boondoogle: supporters and critics of a high speed bullet train await Gov. Scott’s decision.

ORLANDO – It’s a project that could help transform Central Florida’s economy, bringing thousands of badly needed construction jobs to the area, while relieving traffic congestion on Ilocal highways and creating a network of alternative transportation options …

No, it’s a costly and wasteful boondoggle, one that will saddle Florida taxpayers with expensive long term maintenance costs that the state can’t afford, all for a train that nobody will bother riding …

As 2011 starts, the debate over a high speed bullet train from Cocoa Beach to Orlando and then on to Tampa rages on, and it’s going to be up to new Gov. Rick Scott to make the final decision on the project.  Scot was a skeptic of the high speed rail system during his gubernatorial campaign last year, and his political supporters are counting on the governor to kill a project they view as costing far too much money, while offering too little in the way of a payback.

“We do not want him to be endorsing the rail program,” said Peg Dunmire, chairman of the Florida Tea Party, which endorsed Scott in last year’s Republican primary.  Scott, a South Florida businessman, defeated former state Attorney General Bill McCollum in the August 2010 primary.

Peg Dunmire, chairman of the Florida Tea Party, thinks most people want the freedom their cars offer, and won't ride a high speed train.

Doug Guetzloe, host of The Guetzloe Report radio talk show and a longtime critic of the train, said the governor may have no choice but to kill the high speed rail project, since the state is facing a huge budget deficit due to declining tax revenues.

“Scott’s got an estimated $3.5 billion budget deficit in this fiscal year,” Guetzloe said.  “He’s either got to cut spending or raise revenues, that’s all you can do.”

Since the governor has pledged not to raise taxes and to look for ways to cut them further to help spur the economy, Guetzloe said that means steep cuts in state spending.

“Our Constitution requires a balanced budget,” he said.   “Where do you get the money without raising taxes? He says he won’t raise taxes, but those are very serious cuts. He could start by turning down money for rail.”

In 2009, the Obama administration signed on to the construction of a high speed line between Orlando and Tampa, using funding from the federal stimulus bill. After announcing the administration’s support for the project, the Federal Railroad Administration granted Florida $1.25 billion to help build the train route.

But critics say Florida will still have to fund the rest of the construction costs, along with the long term maintenance bill as well.

“There’s no source of funding for the operating costs,” Dunmire said.  “And we’re getting this money from the federal government – which doesn’t have the money to begin with.”

Dunmire and Guetzloe noted that last November, voters in Osceola, Polk and Hillsborough counties voted down ballot referendums that would have raised taxes to pay for road building projects or new or expanded public transportation systems.  While those votes could simply be viewed as an anti-tax message, Dunmire said, it also signals skepticism about people giving up their cars to take a train on a fixed route to their jobs, health care providers or shopping needs.

“It’s the wrong technology,” she said.  “Americans like their cars.  We like to decide when to go, and where.”

But the project’s supporters think Scott will ultimately get behind it.

Paul Senft, director of the Economic Development Council in Haines City and a strong supporter of the high speed train, said new Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio came to the Sunshine State’s rescue by turning down federal money for rail projects.  That freed up more than a billion dollars in federal stimulus money, and shortly afterwards, the White House diverted another $342 million to Florida.

Paul Senft, Haines City's economic development director, thinks cities across Central Florida can boost their economic prospects if residents have easy access to a commuter train.

“The fact that some other states reejected the funds and Florida picked up a tremendous amount of extra money, that helped a lot because the local investment became smaller,” Senft said. “The construction cost has become smaller and smaller as the federal government has given us more and more money. I think we’ll be in good shape on the high speed rail.”

Senft has been supporting the rail line because it would include stops at Walt Disney World, about 20 minutes from Haines City, and in Lakeland, the largest city in Polk County.  He believes communities like Haines City can sell themselves to businesses interested in relocating to the region by reminding employers of the easy access workers would have to rail.

“There’s not any regions in the world that are truly economic regions that don’t have mass transit,” Senft said.  “It will help us, image-wise, and with higher wage jobs.”

But Guetzloe countered that the high speed train will ultimately cost the state far more in the long run than the federal investment suggests, and he said Scott risks burdening the state with a massive long term price tag if he signs on to the project. 

Doug Guetzloe thinks Gov. Rick Scott needs to stick to his opposition to a high speed train from Orlando to Tampa.

“It’s an unfunded liability,” Guetzloe said.  “We don’t have $17.6 billion in the next 20 years to operate the train. I think he (Scott) will be hard pressed to flip on that one.”

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Eating healthy for just $40 a week? The federal government says no, but The Tea Party counters that.

ORLANDO – It can all be as a simple as having just $40 – maybe even $39 and change.

And it doesn’t require the federal government to look after you, the Tea Party says.

On the same day that President Obama was signing a bill to overhaul the nation’s food safety laws, Peg Dunmire, chairman of the Florida Tea Party, was delivering a very different message from her Lady Liberty Hour radio program: let’s take care of our own food and eating habits, and not look to the federal government to do it for us. 

Peg Dunmire, chairman of the Florida Tea Party, says people can eat healthy meals that cost less than $41 a week.

And that includes teaching even the poorest among us that they can shop – and buy – healthy, nutritious foods at their local grocery store without the federal government telling people what foods they should buy to maintain good health – or even providing the money to help them buy that food, Dunmire said.

“Our federal government spends $94 billion on food, and Peg Dunmire can tell you how to spend $40,” she said.  “This is truly something our government has taken over as part of the Nanny state.”

Dunmire’s radio show, which runs from noon to 1 p.m. daily on the Phoenix Network, railed against the federal government’s involvement in setting food safety standards that could just as easily be handled at the local level.

“If anyone thinks an inspection once a year or once every five years makes someplace safer, then they just don’t understand the nature of business,” Dunmire said, adding that if restaurants have poor cleanliness standards that leave their customers feeling ill, it’s a safe bet that word of it will get out quickly and that establishment won’t stay open for long.

“You will go out of business if you have a dirty establishment and you are serving food,” she said.  “Even if you don’t have a (local) ratings system, word gets around that people are getting sick there.”

Around the same time Dunmire was on the radio, the cable news stations were focusing on the bill passed by Congress last year and signed into law by President Obama today, that gives the Food and Drug Administration new and expanded authority to recall tainted food and step-up inspections of food processing plants.

The bill also requires large manufacturers to put together food safety plans.

Dunmire said the idea that the government can protect everyone from potentially tainted food borders on “hysteria” – not to mention a fundamental misunderstanding of what the government can actually accomplish.

“There is legitimacy in us being able to inspect food,” she said, “but the government is not what brings you food safety.”

People should make a habit of shopping or dining at places that have a good reputation for being clean and well maintained, rather than asking the federal government to pretend it can magically ensure that all these establishments are safe. She also said the federal government should stop spending so much on food stamps and other programs designed to help low income families buy food.

How do people know the food they buy at local supermarkets or grocery stores is safe to eat? Peg Dunmire says people should talk to one another to know which establishments have the best reputation for clean standards, and not expect the federal government to do that for them.

“They say, ‘If you’re poor, you can’t eat healthy,’ “ Dunmire said.  “Wrong. I’m here to tell you how you can eat healthy on $40 per person a week.”

Dunmire said she logged onto the Web site for the Publix supermarket chain and did some price shopping.  The average family can spend $14 a week on meat, $10 on produce, $8 on dairy products, $5 on grains, and $3 on bulk items – all of it healthy and nutritious.

“You can go to Publix and get one dozen eggs for $2,” she said.  “You can get two cans of tuna for $3.20.”

Add to that packages of carrots, onions, and celery for less than $2 each, and a pound of apples, plus five frozen vegetable packages for $10.

Toss in a gallon of milk for $3.50, packets of yogurt for $2.50, and two containers of oatmeal through a buy one, get one free deal, and you have the makings of a grocery bill that comes in under $40. Dunmire said she did the shopping herself on the Publix Web site, and “My grocery bill would have been $39.53.  You can have a healthy menu – there is no doubt about it.”

What Americans don’t need, she said, is the federal government spending so much on food stamps that tell recipients what they can or can’t buy.  She recommended that people looking to eat healthy try having oatmeal with milk and fruit for breakfast, a tuna or egg salad sandwich with an apple for lunch, and meat and vegetables for dinner, with some yogurt for dessert.  She offered that advice for free — a stark contrast, she said, compared to how much it costs the federal government to do the same thing, all on the taxpayers’ dime.

“It’s all healthy, nothing is processed,” she said.  “Americans really don’t know how to eat well. Our government is trying so hard to teach us to eat healthy, and it’s just not working.”

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Insisting that “Today, good isn’t good enough,” Teresa Jacobs becomes Orange County’s new mayor.

ORLANDO – Taking the reigns of Orange County’s government at a time of double digit unemployment and a housing market that may not have hit bottom, Mayor Teresa Jacobs was sworn in today with a pledge to make citizens, not politicians, her top priority.

“Our greatest asset is the people who live and work here,” Jacobs said during the ceremony. “Our greatest asset is you.”

Crowds of people -- the very citizens that Mayor Teresa Jacobs says the government needs to improve the local economy -- gather outside the Linda W. Chapin Theatre at the Orange County Convention Center for Jacobs' swearing in ceremony.

Jacobs took the oath of office along with the newly elected and re-elected members of the Orange County Commission inside the Linda W. Chapin Theatre at the Orange County Convention Center.  While expressing pride in the faith that citizens demonstrated in them during last November’s election, several of the commissioners stressed the very difficult economic times this region is facing, with a promise to make jobs and economic development their biggest issue.

Ted Edwards was sworn in as commissioner for District 5, replacing the man that Jacobs defeated in the mayor’s race, Bill Segal.  “I had a reputation for being fiscally tight, and that was in good times,” Edwards said.  “Now we’re in rough times.”

District 4 Commissioner Jennifer Thompson, who takes the seat of former Commissioner and mayoral candidate Linda Stewart, likewise acknowledged the economic difficulties this county faces.

“I hope in the short term to create jobs, but in the long term to create an economic future that we can leave for our grandchildren,” she said.

The problems confronting the economy are steep. The unemployment rate in Florida remains in double digits, housing prices continue to fall, and the state continues to post one of the nation’s highest home foreclosure rates.

But there were words of hope and encouragement from the county leaders, including outgoing mayor Richard Crotty, who was on hand for the official passing of the gavel to Jacobs.

“I will tell you, I believe Orange County is in good hands,” Crotty said.  “We are going to move forward as a great community.”

Jacobs, though, offered less in the way of platitudes, and more of a frank acknowledgement of just how difficult the next mayor’s task will be taking on what she called “the toughest economy since the Great Depression.”

A former county commissioner from a West Orange County district, Jacobs won a landslide victory last November over Segal, taking 65 percent of the vote.  Looking back at the campaign, Jacobs said “It was fun. It was tough. But in the end, the experience was rewarding beyond measure.”

It was also sobering, she said, because as she traveled across the county meeting with voters, she found a lot of people who had a deep sense of pessimism about government in general and politicians in particular, and the ability of either to correct the economy distress so many are experiencing, Jacobs said.

“Unfortunately, many said they had lost faith in politicians, and maybe that’s nothing new,” Jacobs said.  “I am determined to create an Orange County government that our citizens can and do believe in.”

As mayor, Jacobs promised to operate under the principles of fairness, honesty and trust, and also to work closely and in cooperative with other county and local elected leaders.

“I have a plan for a stronger Orange County,” she said, “but I can’t do it alone.”

That also means getting citizens to believe in county government, and to work with municipal leaders to make the country stronger.

“I also believe we have the beginnings of a reenergized citizenry,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs' oath of office ceremony drew a large crowd today.

To improve an economy that’s been struggling since 2007, Jacobs promised to “work to attract better paying jobs” and to promote economic development by holding eight jobs summits throughout the year, and to streamline the approval process for building permits.

She also pledged to reduce any wasteful spending and ensure that taxpayers get their money’s worth out of county government.

“We will run a fiscally conservative administration,” Jacobs said, “and not burden our children’s future with risky debt.”

She also promised an administration that would be about action, not speeches, saying “Folks, this isn’t just talk.  Today, good isn’t good enough.”

Jacobs is the fourth mayor of Orange County, following Linda Chapin, Mel Martinez, and Crotty.

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