BY STEVE BOUSQUET and MARC CAPUTO
Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau
TALLAHASSEE — A special legislative session on a controversial commuter rail project faces the threat of racial discord as African-American legislators want the session delayed so they can attend a long-planned national conference in Fort Lauderdale.
The legislative session is scheduled to begin Thursday in the Capitol, with or without the participation of many African-American legislators.
The annual conference of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators starts today with about 400 African-American legislators from across the country in attendance.
Senate President Jeff Atwater agreed to excuse African-American senators from attending the largely-ceremonial start of the legislative session Thursday. House Speaker Larry Cretul did the same, even though the House has scheduled a seven-hour meeting on the legislation, also on Thursday.
In the special session, lawmakers will vote on spending more than $1 billion to buy 61 miles of CSX rail track in Central Florida for a commuter rail project, as well as finding additional operating money for South Florida’s Tri-Rail system - up to $15 million a year.
The legislation also would establish rail as a major state priority, with a new rail office in the Department of Transportation. The broader political objective is to send a signal to the Obama administration that Florida is serious about mass transit in hopes of attracting federal money for a high-speed rail venture linking Tampa, Orlando and Miami.
House Democrats, citing “urgent concerns,” asked Cretul to postpone the start of the session until Monday.
Two leading organizers of the National Black Caucus meeting are from Florida: Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, is conference chairwoman; Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Pembroke Park, is its vice-chairman. He said landing the conference in Florida took two years of effort.
Gibbons said, “We would be embarrassed if we did not show up.”Legislative leaders put members on notice last Wednesday to prepare for the start of the session on Dec. 3. But five days passed before black lawmakers raised a scheduling conflict — a delay that concerns some Republicans.