Advocates who pushed for Amendment 1 say funds earmarked for environmental conservation in the coming year’s budget are being misused. They’ve filed suit in hopes of restricting how lawmakers spend the money in the next session.
Gov. Rick Scott took action Tuesday on the Legislature’s budget. But even before he could finish striking through line items, a coalition of environmental groups was filing a legal challenge. They helped promote last year’s Amendment 1, which sends a third of the tax revenue from real estate transactions to environmental conservation. The group says lawmakers are misappropriating those funds. A central conflict is land acquisition.
“It’s critical to focus on purchasing these conservation lands to protect our river for future generations,” Lisa Rinaman of the St. Johns Riverkeepers says. “Right now there’s thousands of acres of wetlands and spring sheds and throughout our watershed that need to be protected and they’re on the list that unfortunately the legislature has failed to sign this past session.”
Rinaman and other members of the coalition say lawmakers should’ve given greater priority to purchasing land to protect it from development. Earthjustice attorney David Guest says instead lawmakers used the money for expenditures like salaries in the state’s forestry department. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam hasn’t taken a position on the case, but he says the amendment does give the Legislature broad discretion over allocating funds.
“If you read the Amendment 1 organizers’ comments to the court they were very specific in defending—to the court—the Legislature’s right to fund conservation programs under a very broadly interpreted view,” Putnam says. “However, we do need to continue to invest in our natural resources they’re critical to our quality of life and to economic development.”
And Guest admits it’s too late to do anything about the coming year’s budget.
“I think it’s impractical to get an injunction that would prohibit spending this year’s revenue,” Guest says. “I don’t think that’s possible.”
“I think that, what we can get—what’s plausible—is a determination by the state Supreme Court on what’s permissible and what’s not,” Guest concludes.
He says with a narrower, more explicit definition of what constitutes conservation spending, environmentalists will be better positioned if lawmakers do the same thing next session. But even if the courts move forward expeditiously, the appeals process could delay a final ruling until after that session begins in January.