State Politics

Scott rebuked by 26 senators over rail funding

TALLAHASSEE -- A veto-proof majority of the Florida Senate rebuked Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday in a letter that urged the federal government to give the state $2.4 billion in high-speed rail money that Scott wants to reject.

“Politics should have no place in the future of Florida’s transportation, as evidenced by this letter of bipartisan support,” said the letter, signed by 26 members of the Republican-controlled Florida Senate.

“This project would create real jobs, cleaner and smarter transportation and true economic development for Floridians,” said the letter written to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

The letter was partly authored by one of Scott’s first senate backers, Republican Paula Dockery of Lakeland, who argued that the newly created Florida Rail Enterprise could act independently of Scott because the state’s share of the rail money -- $300 million -- was already approved last year by a previous governor, Charlie Crist.

Scott shocked legislators by unexpectedly announcing he would reject the money and then doubled-down Thursday by calling the bullet train a “boondoggle.” He cited findings from the Libertarian Reason Foundation that questioned the ridership projections for the Tampa-Orlando rail line.

Dockery said the study was “inaccurate.” Echoing other senators, Dockery said the state would be foolish to turn down the federal money to create a “premier” rail line.

“This was going to be a model for the nation,” Dockery said.

Another high-ranking senator, Senate Pro Tem Mike Bennett, also signed the letter to LaHood. Bennett, R-Bradenton, called Scott’s decision premature.

“I would not have done it that way,” Bennett said. “I would have gone to the private sector and given them the opportunity ... to prove to me and the state of Florida that this will never be a burden on the state of Florida. If you can convince me that this will never be a burden on Florida taxpayers for the rest of their lives, I’ll take it (the $2.4 billion). If not, I’ll send it back.”

The number of senators, 26, is a significant number in that it sends Scott a subtle message: The Florida Senate could override a future veto of rail money. Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos didn’t sign the letter, which is the first sign that the new governor has met the limits of his authority.

“I was never a big supporter of high-speed rail,” said Haridopolos, who nevertheless voted for the rail-legislation package in December 2009.

Haridopolos did give the green light for some of his top lawmakers to sign Dockery’s letter, including Senate Republican leader Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, who pushed the rail legislation more than a year ago.

“We’re just saying slow this down, don’t give away this money just yet,” Gardiner said. He also noted that the executive and legislative branches of government clash from time to time, pointing out that former Senate President Toni Jennings once sued former Gov. Jeb Bush over the budget. Bush later tapped her to become his lieutenant governor.

Gardiner referred questions about the legality of Scott’s rejection of federal money to Sen. David Simmons, whom he described as the “brains” of the senate. Simmons helped write the letter along with Dockery and Sen. Thad Altman.

“The bottom line is that he can’t reject this money: It was already approved by another Legislature and another governor,” said Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs. “It’s like trying to veto a bill after it becomes law. It’s too late.”

Simmons said it also made no sense to allow other states to get what he says is the state’s fair share of federal money.

“This is like holding a gun to our heads and telling the federal government: Don’t give us this money or we’ll blow our brains out,” Simmons said.

Other senators said they also didn’t like the fact that Scott decided to reverse a decision of the Legislature without giving lawmakers a heads up.

“This is a sign: Talk to us first,” said Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker.

Added new state Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton: “I understand his (Scott’s) thinking. It’s a very costly project. Although the money is from the federal government, it’s still taxpayer money ... the federal government should be more judicious with it.”

-- Herald staff reporter, Duane Marsteller, contributed to this report.

Related stories from Bradenton Herald

  Comments