Rail funding decision to come today

TALLAHASSEE -- With two state senators charging that Gov. Rick Scott overstepped his executive authority by killing Florida’s high-speed rail line without consulting the Legislature, Scott’s attorney took a strong stance Thursday in oral arguments before the Florida Supreme Court.

“The governor is not in violation of any law,” Charles Trippe said as he opened his remarks.

Sens. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, and Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, filed suit Tuesday after Scott last month rejected a $2.4 billion federal award to build the Tampa-Orlando line. Lawmakers in December 2009 voted to build the line, and appropriated $130 million in federal money to make it happen.

They say Scott is ignoring a state law and, in effect, issued a veto he is not entitled to.

Attorneys on both sides have asked for a ruling today. That’s the deadline set by U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to resolve the issue. After that, he has said, he will give the money to other states. Scott’s schedule says the governor will speak to LaHood by phone at 9 a.m. today.

Trippe’s assertion that Scott has done no wrong prompted peppering from justices Peggy Quince and James Perry.

“Isn’t the governor mandated by the Constitution to carry out the statutes and laws of the Legislature?” Perry asked. “The Legislature said, ‘Let this be.’ The governor said, ‘No.’ Isn’t that in fact a veto?”

After additional questioning about whether Scott inappropriately took over the legislative task of appropriations, Trippe said that $110 million has already been spent on the project, and the governor had no intention of using the remainder for anything else.

Clifton McClelland, attorney for Joyner and Altman, argued that the Florida Rail Act passed by the Legislature and approved by then-Gov. Charlie Crist obligates Scott to allow construction of the line.

“We have an articulated state policy to develop a rail line between the Tampa Bay area and Orlando,” McClelland said.

The justices, though, hammered McClelland with questions about whether the $130 million appropriation would extend to the full $2.4 billion award, which would cover nearly all of the rail line’s construction costs.

“The project cannot go forward without further appropriations by the Legislature. Isn’t that correct?” asked Chief Justice Charles Canady. “This is a project that is still very much in expectancy. It’s not something the Legislature has fully authorized.”

The complaint against Scott refers to a court ruling in South Carolina that compelled the governor there to accept federal stimulus money. But Canady noted in that case, the legislature approved the award, the governor vetoed it, and the legislature overrode the veto.

Justice Barbara Pariente expressed confusion about exactly what law McClelland believed the governor had violated.

The question, she said, is should the court interfere.

“It’s up to the Legislature to decide whether they want a continuing appropriation or not,” she said.

Later in the hearing, Perry suggested that the Legislature could take up the matter next week, when the legislative session begins.

Hours before the oral arguments began, a consumer advocacy group and environmental organization delivered to Scott a petition signed by nearly 3,000 people urging Scott to change his position on the rail money.

And the mayors of Tampa, Lakeland and Orlando held a news conference to announce they had received assurances from the U.S. Department of Transportation that Florida would not have to pay back $2.4 billion if the high-speed rail project failed.

That, along with concerns about Florida taxpayers being on the hook for construction cost overruns and operating losses due to low ridership, has been cited by Scott as a reason for rejecting the money.

“If there is one point that I would like to get across to every single Floridian who is concerned about this issue, it is this: There is absolutely no risk to the Florida taxpayer in moving forward with the high-speed rail project,” Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said. “If the governor continues to maintain that there is risk to Florida taxpayers, it is inaccurate.”

Elsewhere, though, Scott received support for his stance.

“I think the governor should be applauded for what he’s doing,” said Rep. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg.