Striking a blow to the Legislature, a Tallahassee judge said state lawmakers failed to comply with a voter-approved constitutional amendment to buy and preserve environmentally sensitive lands.
Ruling from the bench Friday, Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson sided with environmental groups in the lawsuit centered on whether lawmakers "defied" the 2014 Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative by improperly diverting portions of the money to such expenses as staffing — allegations legislative leaders have repeatedly disputed as they continued to make such budget allocations.
David Guest — a lawyer representing the Florida Wildlife Federation, the St. Johns Riverkeeper, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, the Sierra Club and Florida Wildlife Federation President Manley Fuller — called Dodson's Friday bench ruling a "100 percent victory."
"The people of Florida voted with a firm, clear voice. And the court said today that counts," Guest said after the hearing. "The Legislature has to comply with the law like everybody else."
Fred Piccolo, a spokesman for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, called the ruling a "clear abuse of judicial authority."
"We are confident it will be overturned on appeal," Piccolo added.
Senate President Joe Negron's spokeswoman, Katie Betta, said she did not have a comment.
Dodson on Friday also postponed a weeklong trial planned for July.
The 2014 amendment, which was known as Amendment 1 and was approved by 75 percent of voters, sends 33 percent of revenues from a tax on real-estate documentary stamps to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund.
Since the passage of the amendment, legislators each year have directed at least $200 million to the Everglades, $64 million to a reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area, $50 million to natural springs and $5 million to Lake Apopka.
In the budget year that begins July 1, $100 million from the trust fund will go toward the Florida Forever land acquisition program, which has been unfunded in past years. At least $160 million will be spent on agency overhead.
Joe Little, who represents the Florida Defenders of the Environment, told Dodson that the measure is "clearly" focused on conserving lands purchased after the amendment went into law.
The judge agreed, saying he's read the amendment more than 100 times and considered the Supreme Court's 2013 ruling, in which the justices unanimously approved the title and ballot summary, in reaching his decision.
Aliki Moncrief, executive director of the Florida Conservation Voters, hailed Dodson's ruling.
"The circuit court judge recognized the Legislature was wrong when they spent Amendment 1 funds on existing operating expenses instead of new parks, restoration and protecting conservation lands — which is what people like you and I have been saying all along," Moncrief said.
During Friday's hearing, Little said that the "driving force" for the amendment was a lack of will by state leadership to acquire land for preservation.
But attorney Andy Bardos, representing the House and Senate, said the court's decision should be based on the written text of the amendment, not a perceived intent of the voters, which he called "pure speculation."
The broadly worded amendment allows money to be used for a variety of purposes, including management and restoration of conservation easements, urban open space, and working farms and ranches, Bardos argued.
But Little maintained that the state's interpretation would mean that all of the money in the trust fund could be used for any purpose, without requiring the purchase of any additional land.
"This is exactly what the Legislature has done," Little said. "In a way it is a reprise of the Lottery money supposed to be used for schools."
Bardos accused the environmental groups of "trying to add words to the constitution" to provisions they like, adding that the plaintiffs' "narrow" interpretation of the amendment would mean that money put into the trust fund could only be used for land acquisition in its initial years.
"No funds could go to Everglades restoration because those lands weren't acquired by the state after 2015," said Bardos, who declined to comment following the hearing.
But, according to Guest, state spending of the trust fund money on natural springs, beach restoration and the Everglades would not be impacted by the ruling.
"The biggest thing you can do for spring is to acquire land around them, that's where the source of the pollution is," Guest said. "Drinking water throughout Florida is threatened. The best thing you can do is buy conservation land to protect it."