TALLAHASSEE — The checks have been cashed, and the planes are gone, but that isn't stopping state Senate budget Chairman J.D. Alexander from continuing to question Gov. Rick Scott over his authority to unload the official state aircraft.
Citing statutes and the Florida Constitution, the Lake Wales Republican argues that Scott failed to respect "the Legislature's constitutional duty to appropriate funds and your duty to spend appropriated funds in accordance with the law."
Scott, in response, says Alexander's wrong. "We went through the right process, worked with our general counsel," Scott says.
PolitiFact Florida wanted to step in and referee.
The background: Scott announced the sale of the state's two airplanes — a 2000 King Air 350 and a 2003 Cessna Citation Bravo jet — on Feb. 11. The King Air sold for $1.77 million, the Cessna for $1.9 million; $3.67 million all together. Most of the proceeds paid off $3.4 million the state still owed on the Cessna. The money flowed from the buyers to the bank, bypassing the state treasury.
What was left over went to the state's Aircraft Trust Fund.
Alexander doesn't oppose the sale. Just how it happened, arguing it violates the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches. He believes that:
• Scott unilaterally overrode the current 2010-11 state budget law by effectively eliminating the $2.4 million budget line item to operate the two state planes.
• That Scott does not have the authority to spend state funds on his own to pay off the balance due on the Cessna jet. The money to pay off the lease was generated from the revenue created by selling both planes.
• And that Scott may have erred by not placing the proceeds of the sales into the treasury. Most of the money went from the buyers to the bank that held the lease on the state jet.
"When money is appropriated, there is an obligation to spend it," Alexander said.
According to state statute, Scott is prohibited from impounding state money, which is defined as "the omission of any appropriation or part of an appropriation in the approved operating plan." Put another way, Scott cannot ignore budget items except to avoid a deficit.
The governor also is prohibited from taking money from the state treasury unless properly budgeted by law. But that law might not apply since the money owed on the Cessna was paid off directly by the companies buying the planes, not the state.
However, there also are specific regulations regarding the selling of state property, and the money received from those sales.
According to statutes, money received from the sale of state property must be retained by the custodian — in this case the governor's Department of Management Services.
We asked the Governor's Office to cite statutes supporting Scott's decision to sell the plane without legislative input, and we asked to speak to the general counsel or any person who advised Scott that the sale complied with Florida law. We did not hear back.
We were provided a letter sent to Alexander from Scott's interim general counsel, Rick Figlio.
Figlio said he advised Scott that it was legal to sell the state planes "subject to the condition that the purchaser clear outstanding debt." He then asked Alexander to provide specific statutes restricting the disposal of state property in the way Scott sold the state planes.
"If any such restrictions exist, I would appreciate your counsel directing me to them," Figlio wrote to Scott.
Figlio did not discuss in the letter whether he believed Scott had the authority to eliminate the plane spending line item in the budget, or whether Scott was authorized to pay off the plane lease without first consulting the Legislature.
An outsider's view
Bruce R. Jacob, dean emeritus and professor of law at Stetson University, sides with Alexander.
Jacob said it appears Scott failed to comply with statutes prohibiting him from withholding appropriated funds. The key, in this case, is that Scott never determined that there was a budget deficit, which could have given him cover for selling the planes, Jacob said. Scott would have needed to consult with the state's Revenue Estimating Conference — a legislative body — and certified that the state was facing a budget deficit.
"What Alexander is complaining about is that, under this section, where the Legislature has appropriated money for the expense of the planes, the governor is required to spend that money," Jacob said. "I am sure the governor from time to time does not spend money that the Legislature has appropriated for a particular purpose, and I doubt that anyone gets upset about it.
"However, the main point, it seems to me, is that if the governor was thinking of doing this, he needed to consult with the leadership of the Legislature."
Jacob also said Alexander has a point that the $3.4 million owed on the Cessna should have been budgeted by the Legislature and paid from the state treasury, not by the plane purchasers. "Money of the state should not be spent unless it is for an authorized purpose," Jacob said.
The majority of the evidence and a legal expert side with Alexander in this argument about the sale of the state's two airplanes. Alexander said the sales were "not proper," and cited specific state statutes. Most germane is a law requiring the governor spend the money allocated for a specific purpose in the state budget.
The Governor's Office offered no rebuttal, and as such, we see no evidence that Alexander's wrong. We rate his claim True.