Miami-Dade County

State agrees to let abolished MDX remain to pay employees

Employees of the Miami-Dade County Expressway Authority should see no disruption in their paychecks this week after a Tallahassee judge stepped in Monday to fix an apparent flaw in the state law that abolished MDX without proper provisions for a temporary bill-paying authority.

In a 90-minute hearing, Leon County Circuit Court Judge John C. Cooper agreed to allow bills to be paid using the MDX bank account and name, even though the agency was abolished on July 3 when Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the legislation.

The ruling came after lawyers for MDX, which is suing the state for unconstitutionally abolishing the county agency, and lawyers for the Florida Department of Transportation and DeSantis agreed no one would contest the payments if they were made in the name of the abolished agency.

The legislation, HB 385, abolishes MDX and replaces it with the Greater Miami Expressway Agency, to be known as GMX. It will give the governor more control over the new agency than county officials, and lawyers for the county say that violates the “home rule” protections for Miami-Dade County in the Florida Constitution.

The measure was pushed by Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, a former Miami state legislator who has long complained about the county’s toll road board, and a handful of powerful Miami-Dade legislators including House Speaker José Oliva, R-Miami Lakes.

Cooper called the emergency hearing last week after he was persuaded by arguments from MDX lawyers that although lawmakers transferred all of the agency’s 31 employees to GMX, it did not give time for the new agency to develop a payroll and banking system to pay its bills.

“What is the Governor of Florida, the Legislature of Florida, the DOT and Miami-Dade County going to do about ensuring that the toll roads in Dade County stay operational?’’ Cooper asked at the onset of the hearing on Monday.

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The state’s lawyers argued that GMX has the authority to pay the bills using the MDX name and bank account, but Cooper noted that the law says the GMX board is not required to be appointed until July 31. He was not convinced.

Eugene Stearns, lawyer for MDX, said that if the Legislature had said MDX would continue to exist until the new board is created, the issue would be resolved.

“But they messed up,’’ he said. They abolished MDX and, “it’s easy for them to say: you just write the checks. But you can’t do that — go to a commercial bank and write checks against [a dissolved agency].”

Dan Nordby, lawyer for FDOT, told the judge that if the bank won’t pay, the state can sue the bank.

Cooper wasn’t satisfied. He ordered the lawyers to work out an agreement.

After a 10-minute recess, the lawyers agreed that neither side would be given an advantage in the case if the bills continued to be paid under the name of the now-abolished agency and nobody would claim that it would be considered bank fraud.

“It’s not my desire to be the toll-road czar of Dade County,’’ Cooper said. He said that if a hurricane or tropical storm requires emergency action, FDOT and the governor have the authority to exercise control over the roads.

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Meanwhile, the fight over the fate of MDX will continue next week as MDX seeks to get Cooper to declare the law unconstitutional. Cooper has scheduled July 25 and 26 for a two-day injunction hearing to resolve the issue.

The agreement over paying the bills will remain in place until then, Stearns said.

The county and MDX lawyers argue that the law is a violation of the 60-year-old home rule authority established in the Florida Constitution, which prevents the state from interfering in the decisions of agencies created by Miami-Dade County.

In 1956, the Florida State Constitution was amended to make Miami-Dade County a home-rule county with the power to adopt its own governing rules and with the Board of County Commissioners acting as its governing body. Because MDX was established by Miami-Dade County, the county argues that the state’s attempt to abolish it violates the constitution and the agency should remain in place.

The state argues that MDX is an agency and has no authority to sue. Cooper seemed to agree.

“I can’t understand why the county’s not in this case,’’ he said Monday.

Stearns replied that the Board of County Commissioners had overwhelmingly agreed to support the lawsuit but there is legal precedent for MDX to sue because it has been harmed by an unconstitutional law.

“If they need to be a party, they will join as a party,’’ he said. “We don’t believe they need to be.”

Meanwhile, Stearns called the law a power grab by West Dade Republicans “who represent about 30 percent of the population of Dade County.”

Although the West-Dade Republicans are outnumbered in Miami-Dade County, “they are kings in Tallahassee and they are using their power in Tallahassee to take over local government in Dade County,’’ he said.

He predicted that the efforts to chip away at home rule will continue and “the next thing is the airport and seaport.”

“This is pure, unadulterated power,’’ Stearns said. “They are basically blowing through home rule because they can’t win countywide in Dade County because they don’ t have the support but, because of the party system in Florida they control the party apparatus in Tallahassee.”

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com and @MaryEllenKlas

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