TALLAHASSEE — Improvements to U.S. 19 in Pinellas County and a link between Interstate 4 and the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway in Hillsborough are just two of the huge transportation projects affected last week when Gov. Rick Scott ordered a freeze of all pending contracts worth more than $1 million.
It's not clear yet how many contracts the order halted, but documents released by the governor's office show it covers dozens worth at least $500 million in the Department of Transportation alone.
Scott has not yet released the list of contracts for other agencies affected by the executive order.
The DOT list includes contracts for yet-to-begin projects, such as $3 million to repave U.S. 19 near 22nd Avenue in St. Petersburg, and supplemental contracts for work already under way, including $4.2 million for a connection between Interstate 4 and the Selmon Expressway in Tampa.
"We're reviewing all the contracts," Scott said. "The reason I did it is I believe the state needs to spend its money better."
Scott said the process would be carried out promptly.
"We'll make sure that the contracts that should go forward will go forward," he said. "My job is to watch how this money is spent and I'm going to do it."
Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday slammed the Republican governor whose campaign slogan was "Let's Get to Work," saying he was slowing job creation and adding a layer of bureaucracy to contract approvals.
"With more than 1 million Floridians out of work, the last thing this state can sustain is the prospect of throwing even more people into the ranks of the unemployed or stopping others from getting hired," Senate Democratic leader Nan Rich said Wednesday in a prepared statement. "It's time to move 'Let's Get to Work' from bumper stickers into practice and allow these projects to begin."
The executive order, Rich said, adds an unnecessary step for finalizing contracts.
"If this is how the governor intends to get 'government out of the way,' it sure isn't working," she said.
She called on Scott to immediately end the freeze on the transportation contracts.
Under the executive order, for the next three months no contract worth more than $1 million can go forward without approval by Scott's newly created Office of Fiscal Accountability and Regulatory Reform.
"The governor wanted to make sure nobody tried to buy another state airplane or build another Taj Mahal courthouse during the transition period, and now that the Office of Fiscal Accountability and Regulatory Reform has been established, legitimate contracts are in the process of being cleared, even now," said Scott spokesman Brian Burgess in a prepared statement.
Burgess didn't say which contracts would be cleared first and which would come later.
"They're not stopping work on things," said Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee. "This is going to be a very expedited process and I don't think it's going to create any problems. I don't think they've stopped work on projects and I don't think that's anticipated."
Latvala said as far as he knows, work hasn't stopped on U.S. 19 and that won't happen.
The DOT gave the governor's office a list of its contracts, which includes awarded contracts, advertised projects, supplemental agreements and planned projects. But agency officials did not respond to requests from the Times/Herald to discuss the status of the work and purchases they cited.
Scott's order covers transportation contracts throughout the state, including a $39 million purchase of cars for Central Florida's SunRail; a $6.3 million contract to repave State Road 60 in Polk County; $2.6 million to repave U.S. 19 from 22nd Avenue N to Joe's Creek Bridge; $4 million for partial demolition of the Skyway Bridge fishing piers; and $22 million to widen Interstate 75 in Pasco County.
Bob Burleson, president of the Florida Transportation Builders' Association, estimated the contracts covered by the executive order will create 14,000 jobs.
"Any time transportation funding is cut, you can guarantee jobs will be impacted," Burleson said. "The halt in Florida road projects as a result of the governor's executive order was not, in our opinion, an intentional outcome but more of an unintended consequence."
Burleson, though, said he's "encouraged" by Scott's first days in office and confident that in his "new role as Florida's chief economic adviser" he will let the road building contracts proceed.
"Gov. Scott is on top of this issue, and there should be zero impact on transportation jobs if the contract freeze is resolved by the first of the week," Burleson said.
"There are hundreds of million-dollar contracts with small businesses awaiting implementation. These contracts would pay Floridians for work ranging from paving roads in rural areas to adding needed highway lanes and bridges," said Rep. Hazelle Rogers, a Democrat from Lauderdale Lakes who serves on the House's transportation and economic development appropriations subcommittee. "Florida government should not penalize these employers. I would hope that Gov. Scott's freeze can be resolved within 30 days or less, rather than the costly three-month delay that he's ordered."
Jim Warren, executive director of the Asphalt Contractors Association, said he was surprised by Scott's order.
"We encourage him to get that list going as soon as possible because it is jobs. It's work people are ready to get started with," Warren said. "Most of the contractors don't have much of a backlog right now. It could certainly make a difference if it's held up for 90 days."
Times/Herald reporter Michael C. Bender contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.