As Budget Vote Looms, Environmentalists Threaten Amendment One Lawsuits

Jun 18, 2015

The Everglades
Credit Visit Florida / flickr.com

Nearly 75 percent of Florida voters backed the state’s new environmental conservation constitutional amendment. Amendment One backers call that overwhelming approval a mandate to the legislature to follow through on funding. But the $750 million generated for Amendment one, doesn’t look like the windfall environmentalists had hoped for.

Florida lawmakers will approve a state spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year later today. And already Amendment One backers are threatening lawsuits. The proposed budget includes $80 million dollars for Everglades Restoration, $50 million for Springs protection but only $17-million dollars for Florida Forever—the state’s hallmark land buying program.  And Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee says Amendment one supporters have a right to be disappointed.

“This is a 20-year program, we need to take the long-term view. I think the legislature will get there. I’m sure there will be litigation, there always is in this state, seems like. But the criticisms aren’t unfair. They’re not. But I think we can and we will do better in time," Lee said.

But other lawmakers believe the current spending plan fulfills the Amendment One directives.  During a recent interview with The Florida Channel’s Beth Switzer, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli defended the state’s budgeting decisions:

"Amendment One doesn’t talk about exactly were you spend and how much. It’s the prerogative of the legislature to decide where we want to focus our efforts. This year we decided that, came to an agreement with the Senate, and we have a compromise budget out there that we will have an opportunity to vote on, on Friday."

That vote is coming later today. And environmentalists say they’re weighing their options. Will Abberger is with the Trust for Public Land and led the push for amendment one. He believes the legislature has violated the amendment by using some of the money to fund personnel, not projects.

“There are agency operating expenses that are legitimate Amendment One expenses if they’re related directly to land conservation, land management, land acquisition and restoration- the purpose of Amendment One," he said. "But to think we’re going to shift over entire divisions in the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission that were previously funded by other sources, into Amendment One, is the reason we see so little new funding for real conservation in this year’s budget.”

But he also admits, a lawsuit could be tricky. The legislature has sole budgetary authority. And while Amendment one steers a portion of revenue from home sales toward land conservation. And the amendment’s authors had to be careful not to tread on lawmakers’ budget power. But as Abberger explains, that tight-rope has led to the current predicament.

“Amendment One dedicates a third of the documentary stamp tax to land conservation….for 20 years. Within those side-boards described by the amendment the legislature does have discretion in how to appropriate those funds.”

A vote on the state budget can occur as soon as 5:37 today. Lawmakers have been under a 72-hour cooling off period. Abberger was a guest on WFSU’s It’s About Florida program.