Near derailment in Senate Dems over trainsby Dara Kam | December 7th, 2009
A heated exchange took place in the Senate Democratic Caucus meeting this afternoon over the sweeping rail proposal that is the topic of the special session now underway.
Conspicuously absent from the meeting were representatives of the state Department of Transportation, responsible for a controversial $641 million deal with transportation giant CSX Inc.
A provision included in the bill that would allow state transportation officials to unlink union jobs from railroads has put the measure in jeopardy in the Senate.
A frustrated Sen. Tony Hill, a former longshoreman and union organizer, demanded that fellow Democrat Jeremy Ring, the bill’s Senate sponsor, fix the measure to ensure that union workers won’t lose their jobs.
“Get it right. Get it right. It’s your bill. Get it right,” Hill, D-Jacksonville, told Ring.
The bill is either all about jobs or has nothing to do with jobs, depending on who is talking and what day of the week it is.
About 138 Tri-Rail workers would get pink slips if the bill passes, union representatives say.
That’s not true, countered South Florida Regional Transportation Authority Chairman Jeff Koons, also a Palm Beach County Commissioner.
He claimed the only way Tri-Rail workers will be out of a job is if the controversial bill does not pass because the commuter rail system won’t get the extra $15 million a year included in the measure. Without that, he said, Tri-Rail won’t be able to run its full schedule.
“We are holding our nose. We are supporting this agreement,” Koons told the packed conference room.
Koons said it was unfortunate Tri-Rail’s future hinges on “Tallahassee labor union stuff.”
Why can’t the bill be fixed to mirror the federal union protections that any rail system would have to operate under if it receives federal funding, Hill and others pressed.
Ring said that was up to the unions In their collective bargaining agreements with the state Department of Transportation or other rail operators.
Lawmakers will be giving up a potential $2.5 billion in federal grants for high-speed rail projects if they don’t pass the bill, Ring threatened.
“If we don’t do something, this is the end. For Tri-Rail and high-speed rail. We’ll end up paying either way,” Ring, D-Margate, said.
“Whose fault is that?” Sen. Gary Siplin wanted to know.
“The legislature’s,” Ring answered, creating a furor.
“Ain’t nobody crazy here,” Siplin, D-Orlando retorted. “I ain’t stupid, though.”
Mike Williams, president of the state AFL-CIO that opposes the measure, and Ring are trying to work out a fix for the union workers, they both said.
But that won’t come in the legislation, Ring noted.
“You will not see the answers you want statutorily,” he said, eliciting another contradiction.
Williams disagreed, saying that the unions could get an agreement with Florida Department of Transportation that would solve the problem.
That’s not good enough for Hill, however.
When asked how much confidence he has in FDOT, Hill replied: “I have none.”