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Environmentalists, State Wrangle Over Conservation Spending

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Florida lawmakers defied a voter-approved constitutional amendment by improperly diverting money intended for land buying and maintenance to cover agency expenses and salaries, attorneys for environmentalists told a three-judge panel at the 1st District Court of Appeal Tuesday.

But lawyers representing the state argued that the environmental groups are trying to impose restrictions on spending that doesn’t exist in the constitutional amendment voters overwhelmingly approved in 2014.

The state is seeking to overturn a June 2018 ruling by Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson, who found that lawmakers improperly “defied” the 2014 Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative by steering portions of the money to expenses such as staffing.

Attorney Andy Bardos, who represents the Legislature, said the appeals court’s decision should be based on the written text of the amendment, not the perceived intent of the voters.

“We’ve been referred to the ballot summary, but the ballot summary refers to acquisition, restoration, improvement and management, without any suggestion that the acquisition must come first,” Bardos said during arguments in the case Tuesday afternoon.

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.

Lawyers for the environmental groups have argued the measure is “clearly” focused on conserving lands purchased after the amendment went into law.

Dodson 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.

But Bardos argued that the judge added language to the amendment that doesn't exist.

“In the trial court’s final judgment, the court summarized the ballot summary by saying that … lands can be acquired and then restored and improved and managed,” Bardos continued. “But the ballot summary doesn’t say ‘and then.’ Again, those words were added, and changed the meaning.”

But 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, warned that the state would like to use the environmental funding as a “slush fund.”

Guest noted that money lawmakers allocated for land preservation in 2015 included the salaries of the Department of Environmental Protection’s information technology staff.

“That captures the dispute here,” Guest said. “They say it’s for environmental purposes generally. We say no, it’s only for acquiring land and also for taking existing conservation land and improving it, managing, restoring and creating public access.”

No timeline was given for Judges Joseph Lewis, Jr., Ross L. Bilbrey and Scott Makar to issue a ruling in the long-running legal dispute.

Joe Little, an attorney representing the Florida Defenders of the Environment, said the state wants unrestrained use of the money.

But Bilbrey seemed skeptical of that argument, saying that the amendment limits the kind of spending the trust fund can be used for, in contrast to a constitutional amendment that authorized the Lottery. Proceeds from the Lottery were intended to enhance educational funding.

“The Lottery problem that I’m aware (of), the Lottery money going to things that the voters that perhaps didn’t think they approved, that’s not present here, right?” Bilbrey said. “There are at least some limitations on how the money can be used. And it can’t be comingled with the general revenue fund?”

Little replied that, under the Legislature’s interpretation of the amendment, there’s “almost no limits” on what the funds can be spent on. That violates the amendment, Little argued.

“Most of the lands owned by the state of Florida, including state forests, state parks are conservation lands, and under the Legislature’s reading, and under (its) practice, this money can be diverted to managing those operations and not acquiring any new land at all,” he said.

Since the passage of the amendment in 2014, 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. Spending on the Everglades increased this year.

More than $906 million was expected to be available for the current year.

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Jim Turner - News Service of Florida