The governors of three states - Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin - did something recently that astonished their political critics: They rejected large sums of supposedly "free money" that the federal government wanted to give them for costly high-speed rail projects.
When Ohio and Wisconsin rejected the money, Florida was in line to get the shares originally intended for Ohio and Wisconsin, as well as its own - more than $2 billion! But then Florida Gov. Rick Scott said that he, too, would turn down the federal cash. He feared that taxpayers in his state would be stuck with huge bills to run the passenger rail project after the federal money had been spent. So he issued a polite "No thank you" to Washington.
His concerns are clearly valid. The history of unconstitutional, federally funded Amtrak is one of constant subsidies and bailouts. Why would any state want its taxpayers yoked to this latest boondoggle?
But Florida's rejection of the money angered the Obama administration, which wanted to make the train project in Florida "a showcase of President Barack Obama's $10 billion high-speed rail initiative," McClatchy Newspapers reported. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood expressed "disappointment" in Florida. Lawmakers in states that will split Florida's share of the money mocked Scott for turning down the funds.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Florida had "ignored the benefits of high-speed rail." She and other critics could not believe a state would pass up money for a pork-barrel project. But the governors of Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin understand something the scoffers don't: There is no free lunch - and money for high-speed rail or any other project does not appear out of thin air. Our nation is $14.3 trillion in debt because our federal and state governments refuse to say "No" to wasteful spending.
The governors' refusal of the "free" federal rail funds is an encouraging sign of better fiscal judgment. It should be praised, not mocked.