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Alexander warns that gov can't unilaterally kill rail project; Dockery is disappointed; Altman calls it 'tragic'

Legislative reaction continues to be swift to Gov. Rick Scott's decision to reject $2.4 billion in federal money, cancel bids, and kill the high speed rail project legislators voted to pursue last year.

Senate budget chairman J.D. Alexander said he was told of the governor's announcement via a text message but warned that the governor doesn't have the authority to unilaterally cancel the project.

"The Constitution doesn't allow the governor to not-spend appropriations funds" and there is $300 million appropriated in the budget to put into development of the rail line between Orlando and Tampa, Alexander said.

He said he agrees there is widespread doubt as to whether the project would have succeeded in drawing enough riders. "I think the governor is making the right choice on this rail system,'' he said."I personally would like to have seen the bids come in to see where they really were."

 Alexander said that if the legislature puts it in the transportation budget, he expects Scott to veto it and "I don't believe there would be the support to override a veto." The question now is, "where do we go from here" and if the governor wants to cancel it, he will need the approval of the Legislative Budget Commission. "We'll certainly encourage him to pay more attention to the Constitution and budgeting rules," Alexander said.

Just as the governor may not unilaterally sell the state plane, he needs to get legislative approval to cancel the high speed rail project. "We would certainly hope that in the future he would follow the appropriate policy with regard to his expenditures," Alexander said.

Sen. Paula Dockery, the Lakeland Republican who was an early supporter of Scott and a vocal high speed rail proponent, said she also was disappointed and "it would have been more prudent" for the governor to allow private sector bids to pay for the project before rejecting it. She said seven teams from 11 countries were prepared to compete for operation of the rail line.

"Florida is a donor state for transportation dollars receiving only 62 cents on every transit dollars and 87 cents on every highway dollar we send to Washington, and this $2.4 billion in federal transportation dollars would have brought Florida in line with other states,'' Dockery said in a statement. "It appears that Secretary LaHood will direct these billions lost by Florida to California where true high speed rail has the next best opportunity to succeed."

Sen. Thad Altman called the governor's decision to cancel "one of the most exciting private sector projects in the history of this country" tragic, premature, and "bad for the people of Florida."

"The governor needs to at least allow the bid process to carry forward. Is he afraid of the bid?,'' Altman asked. "Let the private sector come in and show us what they could do."

Altman, R-Melbourne, accused the governor of interfering with private sector enterprise. "He's using government to short-change the private sector's opportunity to bid and show case how this can work. Don't use your position as governor to stand in the way of the private sector to show what it can do."

He also chided Scott for talking about President Obama and federal policy in his statement rejecting the money. "This isn't about federal policy. This is about Florida," Altman said. "If he wants to make a statement on federal policy he can do so, but don't use our $2.7 billion to do that. That money belongs to the people of Florida. What he's doing is reaching into the pocket of taxpayers and taking $2.7 billion from them. He's governor now. It's not about his opinion. It's about what's best for the people of Florida."

Altman said people in other states are now "celebrating our loss...We've been working on this rail project for decades and a lot of smart, very talented, brilliant people in the public and private sector, don't deprive the people of Florida to at least compete for this,'' he said.

He said the project had the potential to enhance Florida's place as the top tourism destination in the world by helping advance a "world class intermodal system. To cut it short, the people of the state will suffer,'' he said.