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Weekly Roundup: Planes and Trains and a Drug Database

February 25, 2011 - 6:00pm

When they started talking about high-speed rail, proponents said it was a futuristic concept. And it will continue to be an idea for the future, maybe one that will never happen at all.

The train buffs were rebuffed this week by a governor who said the train wont be leaving the station on his watch, because it will probably be a failure that will end up costing the state money.

Supporters of the idea railed that Gov. Rick Scott was being unreasonable. A bipartisan group of train backers -- from U.S. Rep. John Mica and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in Washington to mayors in Central Florida to 25 members of the state Senate -- thought this week they might be able to persuade the governor to let them work on building the train. They came up with a proposal that would have the state insulated from any future financial obligation.

It would have sent the $2.4 billion already awarded to the state by the federal government to an independent authority that would work with locals and private vendors to get the train going with only minimal state involvement and no financial obligation for state taxpayers.

But Scott wasnt convinced, and backers by Thursday were saying they wouldnt be able to go forward without the governors approval. There was some talk of a possible lawsuit against the governor, and while it appeared to be mostly just talk, Space Coast area Sen. Thad Altman called the disconnect between rail-backing lawmakers and the new state chief executive a constitutional crisis.

If there was a theme this week at the Capitol, beyond the immediate fight over the high-speed train, it was another chapter in a developing storyline that has pervaded Scotts short term in office thus far.

The title of that chapter would likely be Power Struggle, but that sort of cheapens it by making it sound overly political. In many ways its a fundamental struggle between the new governor and lawmakers over the basic question of who has the authority to do what in this state government.

Scott may not have read the books that talk about Florida as a state with a weak governor design.

In addition to manifesting itself in the fight over the authority to spend federal money on a rail project, the theme flowed through other high-profile fights between the Capitol first floor and the fourth floor this week one over state airplanes, and the other over a planned database meant to track prescription drug abusers.

The plane fight was also largely between the governor and the Senate, with veteran Sen. J.D. Alexander initiating a weeklong question-and-answer session with the governors office on whether Scott had the legal authority to sell the state airplanes. The Legislature put the costs for operating the state planes, including an air pool staff to fly and maintain them, in the budget and enacted that budget. The law, Alexander notes, doesnt allow the governor to simply not spend money thats appropriated by the Legislature.

The state Constitution also may be in play because it says only the Legislature may appropriate money. But Scott essentially determined how some state money would be spent when he took the proceeds of the sale of one of the planes and earmarked it to pay off the lease of the other. Thats essentially appropriating money, Alexander said in a terse letter to Scott.

The governor dismissed Alexanders first letter, saying basically no worries, he hadnt broken the law. He may not have counted on Alexander coming back and asking him why not? To which Scotts lawyer responded this week asking Alexander to remind him again what it is he thinks the governor did wrong.

Alexander has wanted the planes sold for years. But the question of who is allowed by law and the Constitution to do what is a question that appears to be taken seriously by lawmakers now facing a governor who has never been one of them, and hasnt gone out of his way to acknowledge their role in the process.

The prescription drug database was created by legislators last year as part of an effort to fight what some have called an epidemic of easy access to pain pills that has other states complaining Florida is feeding their addicts all manner of dangerous drugs they cant get in their own states.

But Scott and many others -- thinks a database would invade the privacy of those legitimately taking prescription medication and wants lawmakers to kill it. Theres no constitutional or legal question here. The governor isnt trying to kill the database unilaterally, in fact in this one hes merely suggesting that lawmakers should scrap the law calling for the database.

Still, it fits into the theme of the week because it points out another place, like the fight over trains and planes, where the governor is at odds with some legislators from his own Republican Party, and portends, possibly, a session that wont be totally harmonious between the two branches.

To be fair, this story isnt completely new. Lawmakers sued Gov. Charlie Crist over his efforts to expand gambling without their consent and Crist was pretty much persona non grata in the Legislature during his last several months in office as he left the GOP and vetoed the top priorities of legislative Republicans.

Even Gov. Jeb Bush who was a hero to many Republicans in the Legislature also had run-ins with GOP lawmakers. The Senate successfully sued Bush after he vetoed part of a budget item for a longer school year pilot project. The thrust of the lawsuit was entirely over who has the power to do what, and senators said partial vetoes simply werent allowed.

But Scott comes to Tallahassee with no government experience and seemingly little patience for things that dont help him achieve his campaign promise of creating jobs quickly.


While the aim here is to round up the weeks events in Florida state government, it would be imprudent not to at least mention what was going on in Wisconsin. The similarities have been noted between that states Republican governor named Scott and this ones, but Rick Scott parted company a bit this week with his Northern counterpart Scott Walker.

Early in the week Floridas Scott said during a radio interview, almost in passing, that collective bargaining is fine with him. Thats the opposite from the position taken by Walker and several other new Republican governors in other states who think collective bargaining by public employees is certainly not fine.

Whether Floridas Scott intended to send a signal that he isnt interested in attacking state employees rights to be in a union or not isnt clear. But thats definitely the signal he sent and the story quickly gained national traction because it set him a bit apart from a trend in his party.


Attorney General Pam Bondi also took a bold position this week, saying she intends to propose that Florida reverse its move to make it easier for ex-felons to get their civil rights restored.

Bondi made no effort to slide the idea into policy quietly, but forthrightly announced her intention, even leaving fellow Cabinet members and the public time to weigh in on the idea, which wont come up for a couple of weeks before the Cabinet.

Bondi said she simply didnt agree with the ease with which former felons now can start the process for getting their civil rights back after serving their time. Crist moved to make it easier four years ago after years of complaints, particularly from the African-American community, that Florida made it particularly difficult for former convicts to reintegrate into society after doing their time.

Rather than having that process of restoration of civil rights start automatically when felons have served their sentence, Bondi, a Republican, wants to require inmates to start the application process themselves, and only after a waiting period. The issue will likely be before the Cabinet next month.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Rick Scott continues to fight with lawmakers over who has the authority to do what. He appeared to be the winner of this weeks battle, killing off a proposed bullet train.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "I believe that he exceeded his executive authority and in a very strong sense we have a constitutional crisis on our hands." -- Sen. Thad Altman, R-Viera, quoted in the St. Petersburg Times on Gov. Rick Scott's rejection of a high-speed rail compromise proposal that ends, at least for now, the effort to build a Central Florida high-speed train.

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