ORLANDO, Fla. -- Launching a constitutional battle, two state lawmakers asked the Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday to order Gov. Rick Scott to build a high-speed train from Orlando to Tampa.
Sens. Thad Altman, R-Viera, and Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, argue in the 25-page suit that Scott must take $2.4 billion in federal funding and complete the project because of a law (SB 1212) passed by the Legislature during a special session in 2009.
The suit, Joyner said, is "necessary at this time because our governor's new -- to let him know this is not a monarchy, he is not a king; this is a democracy."
Altman said he filed the suit because Scott, a Republican, is overstepping his constitutional bounds, putting Florida's government "in crisis; (it) is in jeopardy."
No tax dollars will be spent on the suit, Altman said, because everyone involved was working for free, including the Melbourne lawyer who drafted it, Clifton McClelland Jr. Altman and Joyner sued as citizens, not on behalf of the Senate.
Scott opposes the train because he contends it could run up billions of dollars in cost overruns, making it too risky for taxpayers who could be forced to pick up the tab.
"My position remains unchanged," Scott said late Tuesday in a statement. "I've yet to see any evidence that Florida taxpayers would not be on the hook. Senators Altman and Joyner's disrespect for taxpayers is clear by their lawsuit trying to force the state to spend this money."
The Supreme Court appeared ready to act quickly, setting a noon deadline Wednesday for Scott to respond. Scott promised his team would do so.
The suit seeks, at a minimum, a temporary injunction against Scott for refusing the train money. That's because U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has set a Friday deadline for sending the grant to other states seeking high-speed funding.
While the argument in court is over building a train capable of speeds reaching 168 mph, the subtext is a power struggle between Scott and the Legislature.
Altman, Joyner and other lawmakers said they think the newly elected Scott is dismissive of their role and they want to rein him in. Scott, a favorite of the conservative "tea party" movement, ran as an outsider who said he wanted to shake up the political establishment.
Joseph Little, a law professor emeritus and constitutional expert at the University of Florida, said the suit "seems valid" because one of the main roles of the governor is to enforce laws passed by the Legislature.
Scott, he said, cannot reject the money simply because he wants to.
"That's not good enough," Little said. "He doesn't have that power."
But Little said there is a question of whether Joyner and Altman have the standing to bring a suit to the Supreme Court as citizens, even though they are elected officials.
It might have been more appropriate, he said, for the Legislature to file suit, as the one in South Carolina did several years ago in successfully forcing former Gov. Mark Sanford to accept federal stimulus money after he had rejected it.
One reason the Florida Legislature did not sign on is because Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, and House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, support Scott, even though they both backed high-speed rail in 2009. The legislation authorizing construction of the train also approved construction of the SunRail commuter train through central Florida.
Scott also is holding up $235 million worth of contracts for SunRail, raising the possibility that the 61-mile train line could become a bargaining chip with lawmakers -- especially Cannon -- who have strongly supported it.
In a statement, Haridopolos said that "funding of the high-speed rail project is not something we as a state and a country can afford. Is my intention to ensure that there is no money in the upcoming 2011-12 state budget to fund high-speed rail."
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One longtime supporter of high-speed rail, U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, said she was "encouraged" by the lawsuit but said the effort to save the 84-mile line still "requires some prayer" if it is to be successful.
Brown accused Scott of practicing "politics at its worst." Scott has referred to the $2.7 billion project as "Obamarail."
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., has talked several times with Scott about reconsidering his decision, but to no avail. Nelson welcomed the suit.
"I've previously said I think the governor may have exceeded his authority in this matter. The stakes are too high not to seek further review of his decision," said Nelson, who also is seeking another extension from LaHood to allow the lawsuit to be heard.
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Florida lawmakers already have budgeted about $130 million for high-speed rail, as well as created a Florida Rail Enterprise to oversee the work under measures signed by former Gov. Charlie Crist. The suit contends Scott has no authority to reject the appropriation now or the directive of the High Speed Rail Act to move forward with the federal money.
(Mark Schlueb and Mark K. Matthews of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report.)
(c) 2011, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).
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