TALLAHASSEE — Barely two months after taking office, Gov. Rick Scott's increasingly tense relations with the Legislature landed him in the Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday when two state senators filed suit arguing he has overstepped the limits of his authority by rejecting federal money for high-speed rail.
Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, and Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, contend Scott violated the Constitution when he rejected $2.4 billion for a Tampa-Orlando line after the Legislature had already voted to move ahead with the project.
"This is not a monarchy. He is not a king," Joyner said. "This is a democracy. There are three co-equal, independent branches of government and it is necessary for them to be respected."
Within hours, the Supreme Court responded to the bipartisan lawsuit, issuing an order requiring Scott to submit a response by noon today. Altman and Joyner then have until 4 p.m. to reply.
In Washington on Tuesday to promote Florida tourism, Scott was unfazed.
"I am very comfortable that I am representing the taxpayers of the state," he said when asked whether he felt he was on sound legal footing.
He again restated his opposition to high-speed rail, citing potential cost overruns and other liabilities that advocates insist will be covered by private companies. "I've not been convinced that the state's not going to be on the hook for all of these things," he said. "No one has shown me anything different."
Later, in a prepared statement, Scott said Altman and Joyner were showing "disrespect" for taxpayers by trying to force the state to spend the money.
Altman, whose district covers parts of Orange, Seminole and Brevard counties, said the suit was necessary to protect the Constitution.
"This is our American democracy," he said, noting that the country's founders set up the three branches of government "to prevent a king from taking over."
The senators' attorney is Clifton McClelland Jr. from Melbourne, who is volunteering his time, according to Altman.
In effect, the petitioners argue, Scott is attempting a line-item veto of a law and appropriations approved "under a prior Legislature and a prior governor."
In 2009, then-Gov. Charlie Crist accepted the high-speed rail money, some of which is part of President Barack Obama's economic stimulus package. In a special session late that year, the Legislature voted to support high-speed rail in Florida, established the Florida Rail Enterprise and appropriated $131 million in stimulus money to make it happen.
Appropriations, whether from state or federal sources, rest "exclusively" with the Legislature, not the governor, court documents say.
But Scott halted the project shortly after his Jan. 4 inauguration by refusing to complete the "ministerial act" of signing a contract to allow work to begin on the project, according to court records.
Instead, when Scott officially rejected the federal money Feb. 16, he said it would have greater economic impact if directed to such projects as dredging ports to expand international trade opportunities.
A footnote in court documents takes a political jab at Scott, pointing out he "is not philosophically opposed to taking" federal stimulus money: "He just refuses to apply it to high-speed rail. Under federal law, the monies simply cannot be used for other projects."
The suit cites a Supreme Court decision in South Carolina that determined the governor of that state was obligated to accept federal stimulus money after the legislature had appropriated it.
Scott's rejection of the money set off a scramble by federal, state and local officials to circumvent him and save the long-planned project. Local governments, including Orlando, Tampa, Lakeland and Miami, formed a coalition they said would assume responsibility for putting the project out to bid and ensuring that a private company would cover any construction cost overruns, operating losses due to low ridership, and the obligation to pay back the federal funds if the project failed.
It was presented to Scott last week, and he met privately Monday night with Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and Lakeland Mayor Gow Fields, who have been trying to warm him up to the idea.
But his stance remains the same: no on high-speed rail.
On Friday in Washington, Scott met with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who later said he was giving the state until March 4 to work something out. The move bought time for the Florida lawmakers to prepare the lawsuit.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, forwarded a copy of the court filings to LaHood and asked him to wait yet another week before sending Florida's rail money to another state.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said the suit keeps hope alive for rail supporters.
"They have some very strong points of contention," she said, adding that the coalition is looking to business interests to continue to lobby Scott.
State Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, said he supports the suit.
"I believe these constitutional issues need to be addressed and be resolved," he said. "This is an appropriate forum for that."
Simmons was among 26 senators who signed a letter rebuking Scott for the way he handled the rail issue. At least two senators who signed the letter later said they agreed with Scott's decision to end the project, but they didn't like the way he went about it.
In particular, they felt he didn't respect the legislative process.
It's a charge being leveled at Scott on at least one other front: his sale of the state airplanes. Sen. J.D. Alexander, a Republican from Lake Wales, has been pressuring Scott to explain why he believes he had the authority to sell the planes without consulting the Legislature.
Senate President Mike Haridopolos said he does not support the lawsuit and will make sure the upcoming budget includes no money for high-speed rail.
Ronnie Duncan, chairman of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, wondered if the lawsuit would do nothing more than strain relations with Scott and hurt chances for support of future projects.
"When you've had a fight with somebody, you need to swallow and keep going. And not everybody does that in politics," Duncan said. "Merited or not, sometimes you can win the battle and lose the war."
It's not unprecedented for legislators to sue the governor. In fact, it's almost become a right of passage for first-termers.
Most recently, Crist and Gov. Jeb Bush faced lawsuits challenging their authority soon after they were elected. In both cases, the Supreme Court ruled against the governor.
Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus of government and Florida politics at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, said it's not surprising Scott would butt heads with the Legislature given that he has said he wants to run the state like a business.
"Very few politicians have been successful applying a business model to government, because business isn't government," Paulson said.
CEOs can reorganize and hire and fire at will. A governor is constrained by the Legislature and the courts.
It's possible, he said, Scott will succeed and redefine the role of governor.
"Or he could simply be looked at as tyrannical, trying to get things done no matter what," he said.
Times researchers Caryn Baird and Natalie Watson and Times/Herald staff writers Becky Bowers, Alexandra Zayas, David DeCamp and Marc Caputo contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.