Sep 28, 2017
Environmental lawsuit over ‘Amendment 1’ funding set for trial
By Jim Rosica
A Tallahassee judge has set a trial week in a lawsuit over the state’s environmental funding under a constitutional amendment passed almost three years ago. Circuit Judge Charles Dodson scheduled a weeklong bench trial for next July 23-27, with a pretrial conference set for June 15, court records show. Discovery in the case was ordered finished by May 25.
Environmental advocacy groups had filed suit in 2015 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, 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 by Dodson earlier this year. He cited a state law that allows litigation to be suspended during and shortly after a Legislative Session.
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.
Later, as the economy recovered and without renewed funding from the Legislature, Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet opted more often to use a preservation method, known as acquiring conservation easements, preferred by Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. Under conservation easements, land is protected from development, but farmers and ranchers typically can continue to use the property.
The Department of Environmental Protection has asked for $50 million for Florida Forever in next year’s state budget. The current 2017-2018 state budget included nothing for Florida Forever.