The lawsuit filed Tuesday by two state senators seeking to revive the high-speed rail project that Gov. Rick Scott killed is more than political posturing. There is considerable merit to the claim that the governor exceeded his authority by refusing to carry out state law and spend money as the Legislature directed. The Florida Supreme Court has asked the governor to respond today, and the Obama administration should wait for the court's decision before handing Florida's rail money to another state.
Sens. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, and Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, make a logical argument that Scott does not have power to arbitrarily derail the Tampa-to-Orlando high-speed rail line. First, the lawsuit points out, the Legislature appropriated $130.8 million in federal money for the project in the current state budget. It seems pretty clear that the Florida Constitution gives the Legislature the sole authority to appropriate money, and state law says the governor cannot simply choose not to spend it. If he could, the state budget passed by legislators would mean nothing, and the governor alone could decide how to spend public money.
Second, the lawsuit recounts how the Legislature voted in 2009 to create the Florida Rail Enterprise and put into law that the enterprise "shall'' design and build a high-speed rail system. It details how the enterprise negotiated grant agreements with the federal government last year under then-Gov. Charlie Crist and began preparing to go forward with the project. It is reasonable to question how Scott can then take office and unilaterally scrap a public works project the Legislature approved and required to be built.
This is not the best way to settle the high-speed rail controversy. If Scott's fears about the state's financial liability were genuine, he would have waited for the bids from private companies and then asked the Legislature to adjust or abandon the project if the bids were unacceptable. Or he could have worked in good faith with Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and other local officials to satisfy his concerns. Instead he rejected $2.4 billion in federal money for the project to score political points and show up the Obama administration.
There is too much at stake to let this new governor's arbitrary decision go unchallenged, and the court has an opportunity to clarify the powers of the executive and legislative branches of state government.