Governor and Senators’ High-Speed Rail Brawl Crashes a Skeptical Florida Supreme Court
FlaglerLive | March 3, 2011
Two lawmakers who say Gov. Rick Scott has no authority to scrub a Tampa to Orlando bullet train brought their case to the Florida Supreme Court Thursday in what may be only the first in a series of challenges to the CEO-turned-governor’s approach to the job.
With $2.4 billion in federal funds hanging in the balance, Sens. Thad Altman and Arthenia Joyner–he a Republican, she a Democrat–brought their case to the state’s highest court as individual lawmakers. But the pair undoubtedly represented colleagues in both chambers who believe Scott overstepped his authority by canceling a high speed rail project approved by lawmakers in December 2009.
- Senators Against “King” Scott Face Off at Florida Supreme Court Over High-Speed Rail
- Senators File Supreme Court Challenge To Gov. Scott’s $2.4 Billion Rail Spurn
- Despite Potential for 14,000 Jobs, Scott Rejects $2.4 Billion in High-Speed Rail Money
- The Altman-Joyner Petition to the Court
- Governor’s Response
- Altman-Joyner Reply to Governor’s Response
- The Case’s Supreme Court Docket
“Rather than faithfully implementing that law (Scott) has pretty much said he is going to refuse to implement it,” Altman told reporters after the short arguments by his lawyer and the governor’s general counsel. “The only entity that can do that is the Legislature, not the governor.”
Scott’s General Counsel Charles Trippe countered before the justices that a ruling favoring the legislators would place the court in the position of forcing a governor to spend money that had yet to be received by the state. Trippe said nothing in state law could force the governor to spend the federal money offered as a carrot to states to develop alternative transportation networks.
“The governor is not demanded by the federal government to do anything,” Trippe said. “He only has to spend what has been appropriated. None of that federal grant money has been appropriated so he has no duty to spend it.”
During questioning, justices pressed the lawmakers’ attorney, Clifton McClelland, to explain how Scott’s decision on the yet-to-be received federal money would constitute an overstep. Justice Barbara Pariente echoed the sentiments of at least two other justices that the lawsuit seemed premature, because lawmakers had yet to specifically divvy up the federal funds.
Chief Justice Charles Canady, a former Congressman and the only former state lawmaker on the court, also questioned the legislators’ assertion that Scott is barred from vetoing future state expenditures related to the high speed project – because lawmakers already put into law that the train should be built.
“If there is anything that is integral to the executive function under our constitution, it is the governor’s ability to veto measures coming from the Legislature, including his authority to exercise a line item veto in response to appropriations,” Canady said.
The court is under pressure to move quickly. U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has given Florida until Friday to decide whether to take the money. If not it may be sent to other states.
Last month, Scott notified LaHood that the project was too risky and could leave Florida taxpayers holder the bag for a multi-billion dollar boondoggle. Several senators sent a Scott a letter urging him to accept the funds.
The federal money would pay more than 90 percent of project costs for the Tampa to Orlando route, the first leg of a system backers say could eventually extend south to Miami.
On Thursday, Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, withdrew his name from that letter, saying he had wanted to send a message to Scott that he had to work with the Legislature, but didn’t want to force him to accept the federal money now.
“In my attempt to disagree with the unilateral decision to refuse the funds for the High Speed Rail, I am afraid that my signature on this letter has been misconstrued as support for a High Speed Rail project in Florida,” Bennett wrote.
The Supreme Court hasn’t given a timeline for when it may rule.
–Michael Peltier, News Service of Florida