TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – A Gainesville-based environmental group has launched a second legal challenge to how lawmakers carried out a constitutional amendment that requires spending on land acquisition and preservation.
The Florida Defenders of the Environment wants a Leon County circuit judge to block the Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of State, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission from spending the dollars in the current fiscal year.
Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokeswoman Susan Smith said Thursday the agency had not been served, while Department of State spokeswoman Meredith Beatrice said in an email that, "The department does not comment on litigation."
The lawsuit stems from a ballot initiative known as "Amendment 1," which voters overwhelmingly approved in November 2014. That initiative requires that 33 percent of the proceeds from an existing real-estate tax, known as documentary stamps, go for land and water maintenance and acquisition across Florida.
As with a separate lawsuit filed in June by the Florida Wildlife Federation, the St. Johns Riverkeeper, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida and the Sierra Club, the lawsuit filed Monday by the Florida Defenders of the Environment contends that $237 million would be misspent on salaries, to purchase motor vehicles and for general operating costs.
"The Legislature may not make appropriations from a fund that has a specifically designated use prescribed in other portions of the statutes or Constitution for purposes that do not serve that designated use," Florida Defenders' Vice-President Joe Little, an emeritus professor at the University of Florida's College of Law, said in a prepared statement. "Florida Defenders' argument is that Amendment 1 places funds in the Land Acquisition Trust Fund for explicitly designated uses --- purchasing and restoring conservation lands --- and that the Legislature cannot appropriate those monies for other uses."
The Amendment 1 sponsor committee had proposed that natural-springs restoration receive $60 million and that $155 million go to the Florida Forever program. But the lawsuit contends such environmental priorities were shortchanged by lawmakers, with $38.5 million set aside for springs and $15 million for Florida Forever.
With environmental leadership in the Legislature unchanged heading into the 2016 regular session, little change is expected in the approach to allocating money under the amendment.
"The House faithfully implemented Article X, Section 28 of the Florida Constitution last session and we will do the same in the upcoming session," Michael Williams, a spokesman for House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, said in an email Thursday.
Amendment 1 was spawned after funding diminished for the Florida Forever program, which authorizes lawmakers to spend up to $300 million a year for preservation.
In addition to an injunction, the Florida Defenders of the Environment wants a declaration from the court that the Legislature broke the law in how it spent the Amendment 1 money.
Florida Defenders' President Steve Robitaille expressed confidence in the group's effort due to the "legal and scientific expertise" of its members, such as Little, who drafted the complaint.
"In this case, our legal team identified a legal theory which is likely to be successful and which other organizations have not argued," Little said in a release. "Adding our voice, and expertise, to other pending challenges makes a successful outcome --- where the will of Florida voters is achieved --- more likely."
The earlier lawsuit, filed by the environmental law firm Earthjustice, wants a court to require state Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater to transfer $237 million from the General Revenue Fund to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund, which is used to carry out Amendment 1, and to declare exactly what lawmakers can and can't do with the Amendment 1 money.
Attorneys for Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, and Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, have asked a judge to toss out that lawsuit, arguing that allocation of the money is at the discretion of the Legislature.
"Plaintiffs might dislike and disagree with the Legislature's spending decisions, but mere dislike and disagreement do not entitle plaintiffs to declaratory and injunctive relief," the lawmakers' motion filed Sept. 8 said.
They also argued that the four environmental groups behind the earlier lawsuit ignore "the separation of powers" by calling for Atwater to handle the money.
The News Service of Florida's Jim Turner contributed to this report.
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