Environmental Group Files Suit Against Legislature over Amendment 1

from tcpalm.com
State lawmakers misused almost half the money available through a constitutional amendment to conserve land and water, environmental activists claimed in a lawsuit filed Monday. gavel

A legal challenge had been expected after the Legislature passed a budget Friday that uses the largest chunk of the $740 million available through Amendment 1 to pay for salaries and other routine expenses of environmental agencies that were funded in the past mainly with money from the state’s general revenue fund.

The nonprofit Earthjustice filed the complaint on behalf of several environmental groups against the Legislature, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and Senate President Andy Gardiner.

The suit seeks guidance from the courts on how lawmakers should allocate money from the amendment next legislative session starting in January, said Earthjustice attorney David Guest. Trying to reverse the budget approved this session would be impractical before next session starts, he said.

“What we are saying simply to the court is to confirm boundaries and tell the Legislature what they can and cannot fund,” Guest said.

Amendment 1 requires that, for the next 20 years, 33 percent of the proceeds from real estate documentary stamp taxes go to buy and improve conservation and recreation lands. The measure also gives the Legislature discretion over how to allocate the money.

The lawsuit asks Gardiner and Crisafulli to sign a declaration saying money from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund may not be substituted for general revenue and that $308 million allocated this year, mostly for routine operations of the Department of Environmental Protection and other agencies, violated the constitution.

Several lawmakers argue they need to pay for agencies’ operating expenses to manage land and therefore that fits into the Amendment 1 intent.

“The Legislature complied with both the spirit and the letter of the constitution, and we look forward to defending against this politically motivated lawsuit,” Crisafulli said in an emailed statement. “The fact that the legislature received news of the lawsuit from the media reveals much about the plaintiffs’ motivation.”

While environmentalists have long said more than 75 percent of voters last year passed Amendment 1 to buy more conservation land, lawmakers were reluctant to increase funding for land acquisition this session and allocated only $17.4 million, including non-Amendment 1 money, for the Florida Forever land-buying program.

Some legislators argued the state already owns too much land and should do a better job at managing it.

Of the $740 million appropriated from Amendment 1, only $88.7 million — less than 12 percent — went toward land acquisition, including land for springs and Kissimmee River restoration.

The lawsuit filed the Leon County Circuit Court also states while $308 million was used to pay for programs that don’t meet the amendment’s intent, the Legislature passed a $400 million tax cut package.

“It indicates complying with the law was possible without breaking the bank,” said Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation, one of the plaintiffs.

The other plaintiffs are the St. Johns Riverkeeper and the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida.


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