All together now: ‘Thanks, Florida!’

By John Laird, Columbian Editorial Page Editor

Published:

 

Fellow Washingtonians, hoist your glasses high and let’s toast our state’s newest BFF: Rick Scott.

Because the Florida governor bullheadedly rejected $2.3 billion in federal funding for rail improvements, Washington state is $15 million richer in our own drive for better railroads.

Previous BFFs had been Ohio and Wisconsin, where federal funding also had been turned away, only to be sent to other states. As a result, since February our state’s rail-improvement pot has grown from $590 million to $781 million, all because a few governors were willing to cut off their states’ noses to spite the feds’ face. And the governors’ petty stubbornness has impacted us locally. The Port of Vancouver has about $15 million more for rail and other projects, thanks to the “Just say no!” tactics of governors whose desire to make a political statement trumped their own states’ urgent transportation needs.

In Florida, Gov. Scott’s loss has been more than just in transportation dollars. His orneriness came at a high political cost, too. In just the past month, Scott’s approval rating in Florida plummeted from 57 percent to 29 percent, according to a Quinnipiac poll. In that same period, President Obama’s approval rating in Florida jumped from 44 percent to 51 percent.

Could those numbers be attributed to some sudden philosophical shift to the left by Scott’s fellow Floridians? Not really. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio is cruising along with a 49 percent approval rating, 23 points higher than his disapproval rating.

Scott thought he was scoring political points by turning down what he decried as wasteful spending. Turns out, he was very wrong.

State and local politicians who don’t like the rules in the federal funding game have two choices: change the rules or quit the game. Scott quit. As a result, $2 billion won’t be spent on the Orlando-Tampa rail line. One state representative called this “a Tea Party train wreck.” And as The New York Times concluded in a May 9 editorial, “Florida voters might want to think about that decision as they sit in traffic jams, burning up $4-a-gallon gasoline. In fact, some of them clearly have thought about it because Mr. Scott now has some of the worst approval ratings of a Florida official in the last decade.”

‘Hey, that’s our money!’

This debate is a familiar one. Whenever the subject of federal funding for state or local projects comes up, anti-government types explode into paroxysms of anger and recite two hackneyed arguments:

  1. “Whose money do you think all of that federal funding is?”

  2. “This is a perfect example of what’s wrong with the federal government today. The feds hold us hostage.”

Answers come easily:

  1. Yes, you’re right, federal money is our money — partly ours as Washingtonians, and wholly ours as Americans. No one ever said it wasn’t. And since it’s partly our money, shouldn’t we want more of it coming back to our state instead of going elsewhere?

  2. You’re right, the rules in this game are rotten. They should be changed. But for now, they’re the rules we’ve got. Punishing ourselves while rewarding other states won’t change the rules.

This same debate emerged eight years ago in Vancouver when $2.2 million in federal money was spent on the pedestrian bridge over Interstate 205 at Padden Parkway. Many locals called it wasteful spending, a boondoggle. Maybe they were right, but at the time, the pressing question was: Do we want the pedestrian bridge built here or in some other city? Again, easy answer.

Meanwhile, Floridians see no changes in the rotten rules, just money meant for them going elsewhere. And as The Times concluded, “Refusenik Republicans glorify shop-worn principles like smaller government and states’ rights. They will have to defend them to their voters when the public hears the passenger trains whistling from the next state over.”

Rick Scott, you certainly made your point, to the delight of competing states and to the disdain of your constituents, as reflected in your plunging approval rating.

Memo to governors: The applause is supposed to come from your own state.

John Laird is The Columbian’s editorial page editor. His column of personal opinion appears each Sunday. Reach him at john.laird@columbian.com.