Environmental groups increase the heat on Legislature diverting Amendment 1 money
Four environmental groups on Wednesday asked a court to accelerate its ruling in a lawsuit accusing the Florida Legislature of violating the state Constitution and misdirecting $299 million in Amendment 1 environmental funds into salaries and in appropriate operating expenses.
The groups, the Florida Wildlife Federation, the St. Johns Riverkeeper, the Sierra Club, and the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, are asking a court to transfer general revenue money into those programs and restore the money in the Land Acquisition Trust Fund.
The fund was created by voters in 2014, after the Legislature brought the state's 50-year-old land buying program to a halt during the Great Recession.The Land and Water Conservation Amendment required that one third of all proceeds from real estate transaction taxes be set aside for the environment and voters approved it by 75 percent of the vote.
In 2015, the first year the law was in effect, proceeds totaled $750 million. But instead of putting all the money into new environmental programs, lawmakers reasoned that they could divert $216 million into appropriated for salaries and operating expenses for existing environmental programs and $26 million for agriculture pollution control projects on private land.
The motion for summary judgment argues that since there is no dispute about what lawmakers have done, the Leon County Circuit Court should declare the Legislature in violation of the constitution and order the money replaced.
"It's a wound that won't heal because it was such a breach of faith with Florida voters,'' said David Guest, attorney for the environmental groups. "The governor endorsed the defiance of the amendment and the Legislature did too."
The groups first filed the lawsuit against Senate President Andy Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Cristafulli in July 2015. The Legislature, joined by Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, asked that the case be dismissed and argued that the court has no authority over how the Legislature spends state money.
But the court refused to dismiss the case and, the plaintiffs argue, that with no facts in dispute, the judge should declare that money intended for the Land Acquisition Trust Fund may not be used for expenses outside the intended scope of the amendment.
"Nowhere does the Amendment contemplate spending money for restoration or improvement of private lands, or appropriations for projects on private lands that have a general environmental benefit,'' the groups wrote in the motion. "If that were true, funds from the Amendment could be used to modernize the wastewater treatment systems of pulp mills."
Instead, the purpose of Amendment 1 is "to dedicate funds to 'acquire and restore conservation and recreation lands,''' they argue.
"Instead of appropriating money for those purposes, the Legislature appropriated Amendment One funds as if the terms 'management' and 'restoration of natural system' in the text of the Amendment encompassed the salaries and operating expenses of state agencies with a nexus to conservation or improvement of the environment,'' the motion states.
The result, they say, is that the Legislature's interpretation of Amendment 1 gives it "no effect other than preventing expenditures by environmental agencies to be reduced below one-fifth of the current funding level."
The Legislature is expected to respond with its own brief in opposition.