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.”
[Flagler County voters passed their own Environmentally Sensitive Land referendum on three occasions: in 2008, 2004 and 1988, each time by large margins (it passed with 65 percent of the vote in 2008), mirroring the success rate in 75 percent of Florida counties with similar measures. Flagler’s land-buying program restricts spending the money to land-buying. No dollars go to operating costs.]
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 towards 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.”
–Jim Turner, News Service of Florida
Why does this not surprise me? The state of Florida has repeatedly violated other Constitutional Amendments, such as Amendment 2 by attempting to subvert, twist and just outright violatie voter approved laws. Why do we create such Amendments? Because we have to because the legislature and governor are worthless and corrupt and does not represent the will of the people who elect them. When are Floridians going to wake up and vote these worthless, corrupt fools out of office starting at the top. DON’T elect Scott to the U.S. Senate. He will go on to do his dirty work in the federal government. Then do NOT reelect anyone who has voted to subvert Constitutional Amendments, or supported illegal changes to amendments or other likewise illegal movements of funds or allowed or had knowledge of illegal activity and looked the other way. We seriously need to clean house and elect honest, hardworking people who will follow their own rhetoric and follow through with enacting the law and fiercely protect the people and greater good of our state. Time to act people! Thoroughly research the candidates and intelligently pick the candidates who will truly support intelligent choices and will follow through on their promises and if they don’t then take them to task. Get educated, vote intelligently. The courts should not have to run the state government through checks and balances. It should make everyone angry!!! Vote intelligently!
Very valiant judge to uncover how they steal our funds approved by referendum instead for frivolous use. Well there you have the GOP’s in Tallahassee in control and that is what we get.
“Fred Piccolo, a spokesman for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, called the ruling a “clear abuse of judicial authority.””
No Fred, it’s an example of the the ‘clear arrogance of the Florida Legislature’ – and just another example of the legislatures’ dislike of citizen-sponsored constitutional reforms.
Gee, and it only took THREE years. Time certainly does fly when you’re wallowing in the public trough, don’t it?
Why is it when conservatives lose a court case is “an abuse of judicial power”? When they win…well, God has spoken.
Someday I’d like to meet a principled conservative politician. Don’t think I’ll get the chance.
I’ve said it before, and probably will again ….
Mr. Smith has left Washington (or Tallahassee, as it may be) , and Jimmy Stewart is dead :(
Things like this are why my disqus avatar is a poster that says : “Want a friend in Washington? Get a dog”
has been run for 20 years by an unholy alliance of crooked television churches, large land owners, big sugar, monopolists, polluters, and selfish senile retirees – aka, the Republican party. We get what they paid for.
Wake up – vote them out.
And we should be surprised? NOT! Election HAVA Grant money has been spent by the state for salaries for years. There doesn’t even need to be a land preservation fund! Government needs to get out of real estate.