Bipartisan lawsuit says Fla. must take rail money

AP News
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Posted: Mar 01, 2011 6:25 PM
Bipartisan lawsuit says Fla. must take rail money

Two state senators, one a Democrat and the other a Republican, asked the Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday to order Gov. Rick Scott to accept $2.4 billion in federal stimulus funds for a high speed rail project.

Sens. Thad Altman, a Viera Republican, and Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa Democrat, argue that a state law passed during a special legislative session in 2009 requires the new Republican governor to take the money for the Tampa-Orlando bullet train.

The emergency petition also alleges Scott's refusal to accept the funding violates the separation of powers doctrine in the Florida Constitution because that would effectively reduce state appropriations, which is an exclusive function of the Legislature.

"This is not a monarchy," Joyner said at a news conference. "He's not a king. This is a democracy."

"People of different philosophies can agree that our constitutional democracy needs to be protected," Altman said. "That system of government is in crisis, is in jeopardy."

Scott, a former health care executive with no prior government experience, has said he's opposed to the rail project because he believes state taxpayers would be stuck with billions in cost overruns and operating subsidies.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood gave Scott until Friday to accept a modified plan for local governments to manage the project instead of the state after the two met last week in Washington. LaHood says that revision will absolve Florida of legal and financial liability.

Scott, though, has given no indication he'll accept the money. Just hours after his meeting with LaHood he blasted the project as "a federal boondoggle."

The Supreme Court later ordered Scott to file a reply to the lawsuit by noon Wednesday.

Scott issued a statement criticizing the two senators but not responding to the legal issue they have raised.

"My position remains unchanged, I've yet to see any evidence that Florida taxpayers would not be on the hook," Scott said. "Senators Altman and Joyner's disrespect for taxpayers is clear by their lawsuit trying to force the state to spend this money."

Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, said in a statement that he did not support the lawsuit because he believes neither the state nor the county can afford the project.

Joyner and Altman have asked the Supreme Court to expedite the case due to the looming deadline. At the request of the two state lawmakers, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., also asked LaHood to push back the deadline.

Joyner and Altman are being represented without charge by Melbourne lawyer Clifton McClelland Jr.

A tea party favorite, Scott has been a constant critic of Democratic President Barack Obama and his stimulus program

Altman, though, said Scott apparently isn't against accepting stimulus money because he has written LaHood suggesting that Florida instead be allowed to use the rail funds for port improvements.

The money, though, will be redistributed to high speed rail projects in other states if Florida doesn't take it.

"Sending $2.4 billion to another state would be a colossal mistake," Altman said. "We just hope the governor gets out of the way of innovation."

Florida stands to become a high speed rail manufacturing center as a result of the project, Altman said. He said that would be an ideal way to employ thousands of Florida's aerospace workers who will be losing their jobs as the space shuttle program winds down.

"We're talking jobs, jobs, jobs," Joyner said.

The rail project is expected to produce 24,000 direct and thousands more indirect jobs, she said, noting Scott campaigned on a job creation platform last year.

"This is what he said he wants to do, and we want the court to look at his retrenching, or his stepping back," she said.