Insisting the Legislature has ignored Florida voters, environmental litagator Earthjustice filed suit Monday to compel lawmakers to comply with Amendment 1, Water and Land Legacy, in the state Constitution.
The suit (see attached document below) was filed in Leon County Circuit Court on behalf of the Florida Wildlife Federation, the St. Johns Riverkeeper, and the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida.
“The Legislature did not do what the amendment requires,” said Manly Fuller, president of Florida Wildlife Federation. “Seventy-five percent of Florida voters approved this amendment last November, and they were clear that they want the state to buy conservation land. Instead, the Legislature took the money and used it for things it should not be spent on. This is a slap in the face to Florida voters, and it should not stand.”
Fuller, with Earthjustice attorney David Guest and St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman, spoke with the press in a telephone conference after the suit was filed.
“The constitutional amendment is clear” said Guest. “A third of the tax on real estate deals is to be used to prevent every last inch of Florida land from getting chewed up by development. But most lawmakers are simply not listening. That’s why we have to go to court.”
Asked why the lawsuit was filed ahead of the governor's signature, Guest said the defendant is the Legislature, not the governor.
He said getting a temporary injunction was a consideration, but to do that, the plaintiffs would have to put up a bond in the tens of millions of dollars.
Guest emphasized that the lawsuit doesn't specify what lands should be bought or where. "We're not saying this is what you have to do, we're saying this is what you can't do," he said.
"We want the courts to identify what's permissible." The amendment is about management of qualifying lands, Guest said, not, for example, about maintenance of state forests, which were never part of the amendment. "There's tens of millions of dollars in salaries for the Department of Forestry (taken from Amendment 1 money)."
The Water and Land Conservation Amendment requires that, for the next 20 years, 33 percent of the proceeds from real estate documentary-stamp taxes go for land acquisition. For the upcoming year, the share of the real-estate tax is projected to bring in more than $740 million.
“It’s sad that a positive groundswell of popular support for conserving Florida’s best places has come to this,” said Rinaman. “It’s a shame we have to go to court to force legislators to do what their constituents directed.”
Becky Ayech of the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida did not participate in the conference call, but said this in a prepared release: “As a citizen who has worked her whole life to save what’s left of our beautiful state, I was so happy to see Florida voters pass the Water and Land Conservation Amendment last fall by such a huge margin. And now, to see that victory get wrecked by a political bait-and-switch leaves me and so many other people outraged. We need the legal system to set this right.”
In a statement issued Monday night, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli said, "The fact that the Legislature received news of the lawsuit from the media reveals much about the plaintiffs' motivation. The Legislature complied with both the spirit and the letter of the Constitution, and we look forward to defending against this politically motivated lawsuit."
According to the office of Senate President Andy Gardiner, these were the major environmental "issues" funded from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund ($748.2 million) and other revenue sources and included in the budget sent to Gov. Rick Scott on Friday:
- Springs Protection – $50 million ($43.6 million LATF and $6.4 million GR).
- Land Management Funding Increase $77.4 million ($1.8m GR, $67.8m LATF and $7.8m from other TF sources).
- Everglades Restoration $81.8 million ($22.9 million GR; $58.9 million LATF).
- Beaches $32.1 million ($25 million LATF and $7.1 million GR). State funds will leverage over $100 million in local and federal funds.
- Land Acquisition $55 million. This includes $20 million for the Kissimmee River, $32.4 million for Florida Forever programs, of that $15 million for Rural and Family Lands, and $2.6 million for other land purchases.
- Local Parks/FRDAP $6 million.
- $93.4 million for the Drinking Water and Wastewater Revolving Loan programs. State funds match federal funds, $1 to $5.
- Small County Wastewater grant program $16 million; and
- Water Projects $73.3 million (requests totaled over $750 million).
The amendment did not provide new or additional revenue. Existing environmental programs were included with Amendment 1 documentary stamp tax revenue. Approximately 21 percent of current documentary stamp revenue supports environmental programs, and these expenditures were continued, according to the Senate president's office.
The constitutional amendment directed 33 percent to LATF. The General Revenue Fund, the fund that supports Florida's school system, health care, and other state needs was reduced $174 million with implementation of Amendment 1.
Existing environmental programs supported from a documentary total $482.4 million ($473.2 million in the General Government Subcommittee programs and $9.2 million for Historical Resources in the TED subcommittee). This is for existing debt obligations, almost $200 million, and program base operations, such as Invasive Plant Control, Land Management (support for the State Park system, Forestry in the Department of Agriculture, Wildlife Management Areas and Lake Restoration in the Fish and Wildlife Commission), and Water Resource protection programs in DEP, Springs protection, Everglades, and the establishment of Total Maximum Daily Loads and Minimum Flows and Levels that protect water quality and quantity.
According to a memorandum dated May 13, 2013, from Florida’s Water & Land Legacy, the amendment sponsors said they “see no legal reason why these dedicated revenues could not be used to fund” these purposes.
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith