TALLAHASSEE — When Gov. Rick Scott announced he would nix a high-speed rail line connecting Tampa and Orlando, legislators, local officials, union groups and others grumbled about Scott's timing and reasoning.
Then many of them thought: Wait, can he even do that?
After all, the Legislature created the Florida Rail Enterprise in 2009 to manage the construction of a high-speed line, and then budgeted $300 million in state funds to help build the project. The rest of the money — $2.4 billion — was coming from Washington, D.C.
After Scott's announcement, Senate Budget Committee Chairman J.D. Alexander suggested Scott overstepped his authority in declaring the rail project dead.
"The Constitution," he said, "doesn't allow the governor to not spend appropriations funds." And there is $300 million appropriated for the rail line between Orlando and Tampa, Alexander said.
Is Scott overstepping his constitutional powers?
Can the rail project be saved by state lawmakers?
The fact that Scott said he would reject federal high-speed rail money wasn't itself shocking. The new governor has long been critical of President Barack Obama's spending policies and approach to government.
But the timing of Scott's announcement — at a hastily arranged morning news conference — sent lawmakers in Washington and Tallahassee scrambling. In Washington, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and members of Florida's congressional delegation pivoted to see if another agency could receive the federal money and manage the rail project instead. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Thursday gave Florida lawmakers one week to see if they could work out a deal, but said Scott would have to sign off on any agreement.
In Tallahassee, lawmakers similarly were scratching their heads and wondering what's next.
A veto-proof majority of the Florida Senate wrote LaHood, asking for time to seek an alternative to keep the 84-mile-long rail project alive while suggesting the state's Florida Rail Enterprise could manage the project without Scott's approval. State Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, suggested another option — though in its infancy — would be to create a public corporation that could insulate the state from potential cost overruns to build the train, or operational losses once the train is running.
"We want to try to keep this alive," Simmons said.
Can Scott do this?
As Simmons, Nelson and others work to circumvent Scott, they also continue to poke at the governor by saying he can't just do this unilaterally.
The current state budget includes $131 million in high-speed rail development as part of the $300-million-or-so the state has pledged.
Alexander's contention is that, without the approval of the Legislature, Scott must spend that money on high-speed rail.
He has a point.
State statutes prohibit the governor from "impounding" state funds — meaning the governor cannot simply choose not to spend money budgeted. The governor has to veto a spending proposal, or accept it. And if he accepts it, he must spend the money for that purpose. The wrinkle in this case, of course, is that Gov. Charlie Crist signed the current budget, not Scott. But the budget is a law, which Scott is obligated to follow.
A second point: While most of the federal money for the rail project has yet to be awarded, some has.
The state received $66.66 million in a federal grant in May 2010 to begin implementing plans for the rail line. Officials say about $26 million of that money already has been spent.
"The bottom line is that he can't reject this money; it was already approved by another Legislature and another governor," Simmons said. "It's like trying to veto a bill after it becomes law. It's too late."
Scott still holds cards
The money in play — the $300 million in state funding and the smaller federal portion — is peanuts when considering the entire $2.7 billion project.
And that is where Scott has the upper hand, lawmakers, former state officials and transportation experts told us.
He can veto future appropriations in the state budget, whether the source of the funds is state money or federal. If somehow those vetoes are overridden, Scott can wreak havoc on rail plans in other ways.
If a bond issue is required, he could try to kill the project through a vote of the Cabinet, or he could to try to hold up giving away the right of way to build the rail line. Or he could order his Department of Transportation secretary to fire people associated with the rail project.
"He has the ability to direct agency heads and the ability to control expenditures that come into the budget over the next few years through a veto," said former state Sen. Dan Gelber. "If the governor's dead set on making it not happen, he can make it not happen."
Even Alexander said the idea of rail is likely dead in Florida as long as Scott opposes it.
"It may be a moot point when he's clearly trying to pull the plug," said Doug Callaway, president of Floridians for Better Transportation, a statewide transportation lobbying group.
Though we think Alexander should have cited state statutes and not the Constitution, he is technically right that Scott is required to spend money in the state budget the way it is appropriated. That means the Legislature could play a game of chicken, forcing Scott to spend the $131 million in the 2010-11 budget, and maybe the remaining $170 or so million of state funds, and maybe even the $66.66 million in federal money.
But getting him to spend the necessary money beyond that — the federal and state money actually needed to complete the rail program — is a much taller order, people we talked to say. And when it comes to the outcome of rail in Florida, at least when it comes to the Florida Legislature, that is a much more important point today. That's the context that gives Scott the upper hand. We rate this statement Half True.
Aaron Sharockman can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or email@example.com.