BRADENTON, Fla. — Two Florida senators, a Republican and a Democrat, filed a 281-page petition Tuesday with the state Supreme Court seeking an emergency ruling to block Gov. Rick Scott from rejecting $2.4 billion of federal funds for high-speed rail.
The suit by Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, and Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, argued that Scott exceeded his constitutional authority when he told U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood that Florida would not use the funds.
“This issue is one of great constitutional significance,” Altman said. “Our founding fathers created a system of three separate and co-equal branches of government. Clearly, the governor’s actions have exceeded his constitutional authority.”
The senators requested an emergency ruling because LaHood has given the state until Friday to make a final determination on accepting the funds.
Within hours of filing the suit, Florid Supreme Court justices ordered Scott to file a response by noon, Wednesday. They also indicated that a final ruling would be handed down on Friday.
The suit pointed out that former Gov. Charlie Crist certified to the federal government that the state would accept funds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to support job-creating programs, including high-speed rail.
After ARRA went into effect, the Legislature implemented a comprehensive statewide rail program that created the Florida Rail Enterprise agency and provided $60 million per year in state funds for high-speed rail beginning in 2014. The law remains in effect.
“The Enterprise’s funding is controlled by the Legislature, not the governor,” the suit said. “The governor’s action in aborting high-speed rail in Florida has effectively, by executive conduct, repealed this appropriation of funds.”
In a footnote, the suit took a jab at Scott’s request to use the federal funds for other infrastructure projects.
Scott has said he wanted the money for dredging around the state’s ports and widening highways.
“It is clear that [Scott] is not philosophically opposed to taking the ARRA monies,” the suit said. “He wants the $2.4 billion for Florida. He just refuses to apply it to high-speed rail. Under federal law, the monies simply cannot be used for other projects.”
The suit also cited a recent ruling by the South Carolina Supreme Court that said the executive branch in that state, after certifying acceptance of the ARRA funds, was obligated to use them.
“The Legislature is the sole entity with the power to appropriate funds, and this power necessarily includes the appropriation of federal funds,” the suit said. “By rejecting receipt of previously appropriated federal funding, the governor impermissibly treads on the Legislature’s authority and exceeds the constitutional authority granted to the executive branch.”
LaHood has given the state two weeks to work on alternate plans to satisfy Scott’s concerns that taxpayers will be on the hook for cost overruns.
Despite assurances from LaHood that the project would be risk-free, and a trio of local governments that presented an alternate plan to accept the funds, Scott has twice said that he thinks there will be risk to taxpayers regardless.
With Florida’s 12% unemployment rate, and high-speed rail projected to create 24,000 new jobs, the project has received wide bipartisan support. However, it is opposed by the Tea Party, which is backing Scott.
“The issue at hand is the ability to create a state-of-the-art rail line … and put people to work now and in the future,” Joyner said. “Stopping this project not only went against everything the governor promised during his campaign, it goes against his constitutional authority as well. The money Florida taxpayers sent to Washington should return to benefit Florida. Unfortunately, litigation was the only way to make that happen.”
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., wrote to LaHood Tuesday after the suit was filed, asking that he grant an additional week before giving Florida’s “money and jobs to another state.”
In a separate statement regarding the lawsuit, Nelson said he believed the governor may have exceeded his authority rejecting the funds.
“The stakes are too high not to seek further review of his decision,” he said.