Environmental activists are asking a judge to order the state’s top financial officer to transfer more than $237 million to Florida’s land acquisition trust fund, the latest move in a lawsuit claiming the state misused money available for land and water conservation.
Conservation groups have asked a judge to rule the state Legislature violated the constitution by spending a portion of the $740 million from Amendment 1 to pay for the salaries and other expenses of environmental agencies, which in the past were funded with money primarily from the state’s general revenue. The complaint also calls on Leon County Circuit Court Judge George Reynolds to require Jeff Atwater, the state’s chief financial officer, to transfer $237 million of the state’s general revenue surplus to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund.
“This is a long standing issue for us, that we would have long-term funding for conservation land acquisition,” said Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation, which is one of the groups involved in the suit initially filed in June and amended in August. “We think it’s critical, and we don’t think the state is doing the job. We think the Legislature misappropriated funds.”
Both the legislative parties and Atwater have filed motions to dismiss the suit.
Amendment 1, a land and water conservation provision sponsored by Florida’s Water and Land Legacy, passed with 75 percent of the vote in November. The measure sets aside one-third of money collected through taxes on real estate documentary stamps to protect environmentally sensitive areas for the next 20 years.
The group had hoped the state would dedicated $170 million to Florida Forever, a state program to buy land for preservation, to protect and maintain conservation lands and local parks. This year, lawmakers set aside $17.4 million, not all of which came from Amendment 1 money, for Florida Forever.
Of the 14 environmental organizations that were part of the amendment’s steering committee, two — the Florida Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club — have joined the lawsuit now challenging the Legislature’s handling of the money.
In a Sept. 8 filing on behalf of the state Legislature, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and Senate President Andy Gardiner, attorneys said the lawsuit’s request “ignores the separation of powers and the Legislature’s exclusive authority” to appropriate public funds.
The legislative filing goes on to say the court has “no authority to redistribute public funds,” and that an order to transfer funds would be “a quintessentially legislative function and violate the Legislature’s long-settled, exclusive authority to control public funds.”
Atwater, in his Oct. 7 motion to dismiss, said his office has no independent authority to draw money from the state treasury or re-balance trust funds.
“Simply stated, the general revenue fund is not a piggy bank from which the CFO may draw funds as he sees fit. Yet this erroneous metaphor is how the plaintiffs would have the court visualize the CFO’s role in the administration of the State Treasury,” the Department of Financial Services said in its motion.
David Guest, an attorney at Earthjustice, which filed the suit on behalf of environmental groups, said the courts have ruled in the past on whether the Legislature misappropriated money. In some cases, Guest said the appropriation was invalidated or struck from the books. Requiring the comptroller to repay the fund, however, hasn’t been done before.
Guest said the suit doesn’t ask Atwater to set aside money to be spent for a specific purpose. Instead, they’re asking that the $237 million be transferred into the Land Acquisition Trust fund and reserved for uses permissible under the state constitution.
But what is permissible remains in question. Lawmakers said they acted within the law by using money for salaries and other expenses, while conservation groups have said the money was intended to be used to buy more conservation land.
Guest said he hopes the court gives guidance on how lawmakers should allocate money from the amendment during its next legislative session, which begins in January. Environmental organizations, will also be pushing lawmakers to increase environmental spending in the coming year.
“The hope is always that the Legislature will abide by the requirements of the constitution that 75 percent (of voters) told them to do,” said Guest. “We have not seen yet any signal from the Legislature that they intend to mend their ways. One would hope they would.”
A hearing in the case is scheduled for Dec. 3.