Florida governor says he's allowed to reject federal rail money

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) sought Wednesday to have a lawsuit filed against him over federal high-speed rail money dismissed because he said he is allowed to reject it by virtue of his election.

Scott was responding to a lawsuit filed by a bipartisan pair of Florida state senators on Tuesday. They want to force Scott to accept $2.4 billion in federal money to build a high-speed railway from Tampa to Orlando.  

Scott said the law that allows the Department of Transportation to offer Florida the money also gives him the ability to decline it.

“Petitioners ignore that the federal government has declared it will only transmit these funds to Florida if the governor expresses unequivocal and unqualified support for high-speed rail,” Scott said in his petition to dismiss the lawsuit.

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“This, the governor has made clear he will not do. Accordingly, to grant petitioners the relief they seek, this court would also have to either order the secretary of the United States Department of Transportation to change his policy, or order the governor to publicly reverse his policy position on the topic of high-speed rail.”

That would be problematic, Scott said, because Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was not named as a party to the lawsuit.

Scott's refusal to accept the funds comes as President Obama has stepped up his support for high-speed rail. Obama is arguing the United States should invest in such projects. 

LaHood has not commented on the Florida lawsuit since it was filed this week, but he said Wednesday that he has already heard from a half-dozen senators or governors whose states are ready to accept it "if more money is available." 

He also noted that many other states have taken some form of rail money. 

"America is ready for high-speed, intercity rail, and the fact that 35 states have accepted the money is proof of it," LaHood said during a speech to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials in Washington. 

Even at the state level, Scott’s lawyers argued that the lawsuit asks the court to overstep its bounds. The lawsuit, filed by Florida state Sens. Thad Altman (R) and Arthenia Joyner (D), asks the Florida Supreme Court to order Scott to “expeditiously accept the funds” because the State Legislature had appropriated money for the railway.

But in his response, Scott said the request by the senators amounted to asking the court to force the Legislature to appropriate the rest of the money, him not to veto it and the Legislature to override it if he did veto it.

“It goes without saying that such an unprecedented order would render the separation-of-powers doctrine utterly meaningless,” the legal brief says. “This is a decision, by virtue of his election and his constitutional authority, that the governor is entitled to make.”

The two Florida state senators dismissed Scott's appeal that the case be dismissed, saying in a counter legal brief filed late Wednesday that the governor had mischaracterized their arguments. 

"Respondent has set up a fake argument just in order to tear it down," they said in their petition. "Petitioners are not asking this court to direct the respondent how to manage the construction of the high-speed rail in Florida. Instead, the petitioners are simply asking this court to direct the respondent that he does not have the jurisdiction or authority as granted by the laws of this state (which he is obligated to faithfully execute) to take the action he has taken." 

This story was posted at 1:48 p.m. and updated at 5:30 p.m.

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