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Train backers decry dire warning

Tom Gallagher's letter urging repeal of the bullet train mandate hints it could bring a state income tax. Ridiculous, say proponents.

By Associated Press
Published May 29, 2004

ORLANDO - Florida's chief financial officer is mailing letters to Republicans warning that bullet train proponents may levy the state's first income tax to fund construction of the constitutionally mandated rail network - a move proponents are calling a misleading scare tactic.

Tom Gallagher's letter is part of a campaign aimed at getting enough signatures to get a measure on the November ballot that would cancel the train project, which voters approved in a 2000 constitutional amendment.

The petition drive needs the signatures of more than 488,000 registered voters.

The first leg of the proposed rail network, running from Orlando to Tampa, is estimated to cost $2.6-billion. The train would eventually connect with Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

"Gov. (Jeb) Bush and I will do everything in our power to STOP a state income tax from ever being imposed on Florida's citizens," wrote Gallagher, chairman for Derail the Bullet Train, or DEBT.

Train supporters say Gallagher's letter is misleading because the state Constitution prohibits levying an income tax and that could only be changed by voters - a highly unlikely possibility.

"This is an outrageous attempt to frighten people about high-speed rail, and to frighten people into signing this petition," bullet train authority member Bill Dunn said Friday. "The governor and the chief financial officer should be ashamed of their disgraceful misrepresentation of the facts."

Gallagher, defending his letter, said Friday: "We just let people know there are lots of ways to pay for it."

According to the letter, there could also be an increase in the sales tax and document stamp tax for transactions involving stocks, bonds and mortgages, as well as a 5-cent hike in the gasoline tax. "And that means we must STOP the bullet train before runaway costs bankrupt our state," he wrote.

There is no indication who would ask for or approve any new or raised taxes. The letter refers only to "they."

The letter includes a short message from Bush, who warns that if the train is built, "drastic measures such as raising your taxes and cutting vital programs may be needed just to balance the budget."

Last week, Bush issued an e-mail asking voters to sign the petition. He claimed, as does Gallagher, that when the Orlando-Miami route is included in the project the price jumps to $14-billion, and he mentioned possible spending cuts, such as firing 13,000 teachers and releasing 25,000 prison inmates.

Gallagher's letter includes a form so people can sign the petition, as well as donate money to DEBT. The letter arrived in mailboxes this week.

Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said any scenario leading to a state income tax is highly unlikely, but added that higher gas and sales taxes would be "a very real possibility" if the state is forced to fund bullet trains on its own.

Gallagher said on Friday that one of his motivations for trying to halt the bullet train is to make sure transportation projects that are delayed receive funding. In the letter, he wrote that the Miami-Orlando-Tampa legs could cost the state $500-million a year; bullet train backers have said the state's annual outlay is closer to $75-million.

Authority member C.C. "Doc" Dockery, who spent $3-million getting the bullet train on the 2000 ballot, said Gallagher's letter showed DEBT's desperation in trying to collect petition signatures.

[Last modified May 29, 2004, 01:00:33]

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