Off the Rails in Florida, Part 1

Florida currently has an 11.9 percent unemployment rate, the third highest in the country. But in lieu of helping those Floridians who are out of the work, Governor Rick Scott chose to make a political statement.

Some background: After fierce competition last year, Florida won $2.4 billion in federal funds for a high speed rail (HSR) project connecting Orlando and Tampa Bay under the previous governor, Republican Charlie Crist. And it’s easy to see why a governor (of any party) would want to reel in the HSR project: the planned Tampa-Orlando line was projected to employ a whopping 10,000 workers and create more than 48,000 job-years during the construction period. Not just any jobs, either – high-paying, sustainable jobs in engineering, architecture, urban planning, and manufacturing.

In February, current Governor Rick Scott – whose 2010 campaign included a promise of creating 700,000 jobs in seven years – made the decision to spurn the federal funds and cancel the project, saying “the risk far outweighs the benefits.” I read through a whole slew of articles on the topic, and found that it was reported largely in political terms: He’s “standing up to the President” or “bolstering his conservative credentials.”

However, there hasn’t been much said about the connection between Scott’s rejection of the funds and stories like this, from the Eastern Florida city of Stuart:

More than 500 people filed resumes Monday at the Martin County Fairgrounds for a chance to work on the long-debated Indian Street Bridge project, which will begin in less than two weeks.

Port St. Lucie resident Gerald Mitchell, a carpenter who hasn’t had steady work in nearly two years, said he wanted to show his commitment by arriving at 4 a.m.

“I’ve been on this, I’ve been calling the Department of Transportation since ’08,” said Mitchell…

…[Contractor] Archer Western is looking to fill at least 60 positions.

And “500 resumes for 60 positions” is a relatively mild statistic. Stuart is on Florida’s well-to-do eastern “Treasure Coast” – think Palm Beach and Boca Raton. In Central Florida’s more working class Marion County, unemployment climbed to 14.2 percent earlier this year, driven by construction workers laid off since the housing bust.

Now Gerald Mitchell and hundreds like him are showing up at the crack of dawn wherever there’s a hint of construction work – and they’ve been doing so for years.

The punditry can talk of Rick Scott’s “spine,” and his “credentials,” and how he’s “standing up” to Obama by rejecting a job-creating project. Unemployed construction workers like Gerald Mitchell might not own a newspaper or host a cable talk show, but I’m sure he would much rather his governor stand up for them – and start placing something tangible behind that 700,000 jobs promise.

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