The state’s high court will hear arguments today at 3 p.m. over whether Gov. Rick Scott had the right to tell the U.S. Department of Transportation no thanks to $2.4 billion in federal dollars for a high speed rail line.
The arguments, two days after two state senators – one from each party – filed a lawsuit against the governor, set the stage for the first legal showdown between the new governor and the Legislature, which has jousted with Scott on a couple of issues.
Sens. Thad Altman, R-Viera, and Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, asked the state’s high court Tuesday to block the governor’s decision to scuttle a state plan to build a high speed rail line between Orlando and Tampa, nearly a year after former Gov. Charlie Crist accepted the money on behalf of the state and state officials began to plan how to use the money.
- 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
The two senators argued that the governor does not have the legal authority to unilaterally reject the money because the Legislature has already appropriated some of it, which was signed off on by Crist.
But Scott struck back in a legal response filed with the court Wednesday, saying that the two lawmakers filed the suit because their policy view had not prevailed.
“Governor Scott has announced, repeatedly and in no uncertain terms, his determination that the high-speed rail project is not wise policy and that it will ultimately prove detrimental to the taxpayers of this state,” his lawyers wrote in their brief. “This is a decision, by virtue of his election and his constitutional authority, that the governor is entitled to make.”
Scott’s lawyers also contended that for the court to side with Altman and Joyner, the justices would have to order the Legislature to specifically appropriate the remaining funds and order the governor not to veto the legislation.
“It goes without saying that such an unprecedented order would render the separation-of-powers doctrine utterly meaningless,” the brief said.
Altman and Joyner countered in a response brief that the governor’s office had “set up a fake argument just in order to tear it down.” The two said at a press conference Tuesday that the governor, in rejecting the money, was essentially violating the separation of powers. Joyner said he was acting like a “king” in overriding the Legislature’s wishes.
“In the present case, the Legislature expressly set forth in the Florida Rail Act the public policy of this state regarding high speed rail,” their lawyer wrote in the argument filed with the court. Scott “has, by his own admission in his response, admitted that he does not intend to comply with the procedures and directives of the Florida Rail Act.”
Not all lawmakers have been supportive of the high speed rail initiative. Senate President Mike Haridopolos, who initially supported the project, backed down following Scott’s election because the federal cash only covered about 90 percent of the estimated cost of the project.
He said in a statement following the filing of the lawsuit Tuesday that the full Senate would not join the lawsuit and reiterated his concerns with the cost of the train.
A Supreme Court decision in favor of Altman and Joyner may not be enough to keep the money in Florida though. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson has asked U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to give the court time to deliberate the lawsuit, but LaHood is under pressure from other states to shift the cash to other rail projects around the country. New York and California, in particular, are likely candidates to receive the money for their rail projects, though several New England senators have said that the money could also be used to improve existing rail lines in those states.
And Scott, in a television interview Wednesday in New York, said he hasn’t been convinced that there’s anyway backers of the train can build it without the state somehow being involved.
“They’ve not shown me anything that leads me to believe that we’re not still on the hook,” Scott said in the interview with CNBC.
–Kathleen Haughney, News Service of Florida