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Aaron Sharockman
By Aaron Sharockman February 24, 2011

Gov. Rick Scott and Senate budget chief in spat over sale of state airplanes

Florida Gov. Rick Scott is at loggerheads with powerful Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander over whether Scott was allowed to sell the two state airplanes.

The decision fulfilled a campaign promise, but Alexander believes the sale was "not proper" because it needed approval of the Legislature. Citing statutes and the Florida Constitution, the Lake Wales Republican made his case in a trio of letters to Scott starting on Feb. 17, 2011. The governor, Alexander wrote, failed to respect "the Legislature's constitutional duty to appropriate funds and your duty to spend appropriated funds in accordance with the law."

Scott countered in a pair of statements to the press that he did nothing wrong.

PolitiFact Florida wanted to step in here and try to referee the disagreement between these two top Republicans.

The background: On Feb. 11, Scott announced the sale of the state's two airplanes -- a 2000 King Air 350 and a 2003 Cessna Citation Bravo jet. The King Air fetched $1.77 million, while the jet sold for $1.9 million; $3.67 million all together. Most of the proceeds actually went to pay off the $3.4 million the state still owed on the Cessna. The money went from the buyers directly to the bank the state owed the money.

What remained was deposited into the Aircraft Trust Fund -- $84,072.13 was deposited on Feb. 14, and $176,500 was deposited on Feb. 17, according to Alexis Lambert, spokeswoman for Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater. Scott said the money budgeted for the aircraft program would also be returned to the general revenue fund, saving about $556,000 this current budget year, and $2.4 million in future years.

Alexander's problem

Alexander, for the record, doesn't oppose the sale. Just how it happened.

On the merits of this particular case, his debate with Scott is somewhat academic. The planes already have been sold and are gone, and Alexander is willing to retroactively approve the arrangement. But the disagreement could have broader implications that result in shifting previously sacrosanct budget powers away from the Legislature and to the executive branch.

The roles of the branches of government generally have been well defined. The Legislature passes the budget every year, and the governor carries out the budget as passed (after having the opportunity to veto parts of the budget, or the entire budget).

Alexander's contention is that Scott's sale of the two airplanes violates that balance. He believes that:

  • Scott unilaterally overrode the current 2010-11 state budget law by effectively eliminating the $2.4 million budget line item to operate the two state planes;
  • That Scott does not have the authority to spend state funds on his own to pay off the balance due on the Cessna jet. The money to pay off the lease was generated from the revenues created by selling both planes;
  • And that Scott may have erred by not placing the proceeds of the sales into the treasury. Most of the money went from the buyers to the bank that held the lease on the state jet.

What would stop Scott from not spending money on Medicaid, then? Or from selling other state property to finance deeper tax cuts?

"The Constitution doesn't allow executive agencies to embargo appropriated funds," Alexander said. "When money is appropriated, there is an obligation to spend it."

He recently made a similar claim when discussing Scott's decision to reject federal funding for high-speed rail. Alexander said that the state already had budgeted money for the project and that Scott couldn't just pull out without legislative approval. PolitiFact Florida found Alexander's claim in that case to be accurate, but noted that Scott held most of the cards to kill the rail line anyway. We found the claim, overall, to be Half True.

When it comes to the state planes, Scott is prohibited by statute from impounding state money, which is defined by statute as "the omission of any appropriation or part of an appropriation in the approved operating plan." Put another way, Scott cannot simply stop or ignore budget appropriations that are law except when necessary to avoid a deficit.

The governor also is prohibited from taking money from the state treasury unless appropriated by law. Buying out the lease may constitute a violation because the payment wasn't authorized by the Legislature.

However, the money went straight from the companies that bought the planes to the bank the state owed $3.4 million to, to pay off the Cessna.

In that case, there also are specific regulations regarding the selling of state property, and the money received from those sales.

According to statutes, money received from the sale of state property must be retained by the custodian and may be disbursed for the acquisition of exchange and surplus property and for all necessary operating expenditures. The custodian shall maintain records of the accounts into which the money is deposited. In this case, the custodian of the plane is the Department of Management Services, which is under the governor's direction.

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The other side

We asked the governor's office to cite statutes supporting Scott's decision to sell the plane without legislative input, and we asked to speak to the general counsel or any person who advised Scott that the sale complied with Florida law. We did not hear back.

Interim general counsel Rick Figlio did respond to Alexander on Feb. 24.

Figlio said he advised Scott that it was legal to sell the state planes "subject to the condition that the purchaser clear outstanding debt." He then asked Alexander to provide specific statutes restricting the disposal of state property in the way Scott sold the state planes.

"If any such restrictions exist, I would appreciate your counsel directing me to them as they will assist this office in advising the Governor regarding the scope of his powers as they relate to future transaction," Figlio wrote to Scott.

An outside opinion

We asked Bruce R. Jacob, dean emeritus and professor of law at Stetson University, to sort through the back-and-forth. In short, he sides with Alexander.

Jacob said it appears that Scott failed to comply with state statutes prohibiting him from withholding appropriated funds. The key, in this case, is that Scott never adequately went through a process to determine that there was a budget deficit, which could have given him cover for selling the planes. Scott would have needed to consult with the state's Revenue Estimating Conference -- a legislative body -- and certified that a deficit will occur in the general revenue fund.

"What Alexander is complaining about is that, under this section, where the Legislature has appropriated money for the expense of the planes, the governor is required to spend that money," Jacob said. "I am sure the governor from time to time does not spend money that the Legislature has appropriated for a particular purpose, and I doubt that anyone gets upset about it.

"However, the main point, it seems to me, is that if the governor was thinking of doing this, he needed to consult with the leadership of the Legislature," he said. "Common courtesy called for such consultation. The governor and the Legislature have to work together. The governor should not be allowed to 'go it on his own,' so to speak, in a situation such as this."

Jacob also says Alexander has a "point" by claiming that the amount owed on the Cessna should have been appropriated by the Legislature and paid from the state treasury. "Money of the state should not be spent unless it is for an authorized purpose and complete records should be kept so that anyone in the state can see what was spent and for what purpose. In this case it seems to me that the governor short-circuited the process," Jacob said.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, said Scott's intention wasn't to be deceptive.

"This is his first month on the job. If he made a mistake, he'll fix it," Haridopolos said. "His intent was the correct intent. I don't think he meant any malice by it ... no one thinks the governor tried to pull a fast one."

Our ruling

The majority of the evidence and a legal expert side with Alexander in this argument about the sale of the state's two airplanes. Alexander said the sales were "not proper," and cited specific state statutes. Most germane is a statute that requires the governor to spend the money allocated for a specific purpose in the state budget.

The governor's office offered no rebuttal, and as such, we see no evidence that Alexander's wrong. We rate his claim True.

Our Sources

Interview with Bruce Jacob, Feb. 24, 2011

Interview with Department of Management Services spokeswoman Lauren Engel, Feb. 23, 2011

Interview with Gov. Rick Scott, Feb. 23, 2011

Sen. J.D. Alexander, comments at the Senate Budget Committee, Feb. 23, 2011

PolitiFact Florida, "Senator makes point about Rick Scott’s authority to nix rail deal, but Scott still holds most cards," Feb. 17, 2011

Alexander letter to Scott, Feb. 17, 2011

Florida Statutes relating to planning and budget, accessed Feb. 17, 2011

St. Petersburg Times, "J.D. Alexander demands Scott turn over public records on state plane sale," Feb. 24, 2011

St. Petersburg Times, "J.D. to Rick Scott: name names, show me "legal authority" for state plane sale," Feb. 22, 2011

Gov. Rick Scott announces sale of state planes, Feb. 11, 2011

St. Petersburg Times, "Mike Haridopolos on Bill Nelson, state plane, ethics violations and croaker bill," Feb. 23, 2011

PolitiFact Florida, Rick Scott promise -- "Sell the state plane," Feb. 14, 2011

Interview Alexis Lambert, CFO spokeswoman, Feb. 24, 2011

Interview with Kris Purcell, DMS spokesman, Feb. 24, 2011

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Gov. Rick Scott and Senate budget chief in spat over sale of state airplanes

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