A lawsuit over the state’s environmental funding under a new constitutional amendment is expected to resume now that the annual Session is in lawmakers’ rear-view mirror.
An array of environmental advocacy groups had filed suit over the Water and Land Legacy Amendment, also known as Amendment 1. The constitutional change, approved by voters in 2014, mandates state spending for land and water conservation.
The amendment, which needed a minimum of 60 percent to pass, got a landslide of nearly 75 percent, or more than 4.2 million “yes” votes.
Advocates—including the Florida Wildlife Federation and Sierra Club—sued the state in 2015, saying lawmakers wrongly appropriated money for, among other things, “salaries and ordinary expenses of state agencies” tasked with executing the amendment’s mandate.
But the legal action had been put on hold earlier this year by Circuit Judge Charles Dodson. He cited a state law that allows litigation to be suspended during a Legislative Session and up to 15 days after the conclusion of one.
The 2017 Session ended on May 8, and the 15-day ‘stay’ ended Tuesday.
David Guest, one of the plaintiff’s lawyers, said they’re now awaiting a response from the state.
“We’ll see what they say,” said Guest, also the retired Tallahassee-based managing attorney of Earthjustice, a San Francisco-based nonprofit environmental law firm. “There are specific statutory accounting requirements regarding exactly how much is spent on land management, public access, and restoration projects.”
He contends that total is $310 million less than what the Legislature should have spent money on. “Then the question is, where’d it go,” Guest added. “They spent it on something else.”
One suit targeted the Legislature; another went after the agencies, including the Department of Environmental Protection and the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Dodson later consolidated the suits into one action.
Amendment 1 requires state officials to set aside 33 percent of the money from the real estate “documentary stamp” tax to protect Florida’s environmentally sensitive areas for 20 years. The mechanism to do so is through the Florida Forever conservation program.
Florida Forever regularly received upward of $300 million annually after it became law in 1999, but those expenditures were dramatically reduced after the recession hit a decade ago.
This Legislative Session, lawmakers decided to fund the program through 2035, beginning in 2018-19, with $57 million for the first year and adding more money till it reaches $200 million in the final year.