The Florida Supreme Court brought an understandable if disappointing end Friday to the state's hopes for high-speed rail. The court refused a last-minute effort by two state senators to overturn Gov. Rick Scott's refusal to accept federal money to build the Tampa-to-Orlando line. The case presented important policy questions about the separation of power between the executive and legislative branches in Florida and the more practical realities of getting long-term infrastructure projects off the ground. But the justices had little to work with, and besides, this decision never should have been left to the court. Floridians are the big losers, and the governor is to blame.
The court denied a request by Sens. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, and Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, to force Scott to accept $2.4 billion in federal funds the Obama administration pledged to build the line across Central Florida. The two filed suit Tuesday, maintaining that Scott exceeded his authority after taking office in January by killing plans for rail that were decades in the making. The suit alleged the governor had little more than a "ministerial" role in accepting the federal grants given that the Legislature approved the project in a special legislative session in 2009.
The legal fight was an uphill battle, given the time constraints Florida was under to accept the federal money and the long-term nature of funding major public works projects through annual appropriations. In effect, the court said, Scott did not overreach by rejecting the federal money because the Legislature had appropriated only a tiny sliver of the federal funds necessary to complete the $2.7 billion project. Scott's lawyer outmaneuvered the senators' lawyer during oral arguments, and the frustrated justices never got a clear explanation of a legitimate question regarding the governor's authority. Though the one-paragraph ruling was predictable following the hearing and reasonably addressed a narrow process question, the implications are staggering for the orderly build-out of highways, airports and other major projects that require ongoing appropriations over long periods of time.
The real story is that Florida's governor succeeded in sending billions of dollars to other states. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was generous to give Scott a cooling-off period to reconsider his political decision to reject the money in a selfish appeal to his tea party base. But LaHood said Friday that enough was enough. Other states want the money, and with the recovery still going slow, the government needed to pump the cash into the economy. Florida lost at least 5,000 jobs. And it sent a message to the business community that this governor will put politics before people or common sense. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson appealed to LaHood to explore whether the federal money could flow directly to a new entity created by local governments, but that seems like a long shot at best.
The mayors of Tampa, Lakeland and Orlando and the business leadership in Tampa Bay and greater Orange County did a great job in working to have responsibility for the project fall to local communities. That is the sort of visionary leadership that should be flowing from Tallahassee.