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St. Johns Riverkeeper, Others Sue Over Lack Of Florida Conservation Funding

Tree Hill Nature Center

Supporters of Amendment 1 filed a lawsuit Monday claiming state lawmakers in a newly approved budget misappropriated more than $300 million of the money voters wanted for environmental land management and acquisition.

Also, supporters of the ballot initiative want a court to declare exactly what lawmakers can and can't do with the Amendment 1 money.

The lawsuit, filed in Leon County circuit court, contends that in using the money for expenses such as staff operations and salaries, the Legislature "defied the constitutional mandate" in spending less than half of the money for the purposes intended by voters.

The suit seeks a court declaration that money from the state's Land Acquisition Trust Fund, which will handle all the Amendment 1 funding, may not be substituted for general-revenue funds or used to pay for other services and programs.

Rather than readjusting money in the new budget that Gov. Rick Scott signed Tuesday morning, Earthjustice Managing Attorney David Guest acknowledged that the best outcome for the plaintiffs may be the court establishing guidelines for how lawmakers are permitted to divvy up the Amendment 1 money in future legislative sessions.

"That's not what we're after, but that what we're stuck with," Guest said during a conference call with reporters Monday.

Earthjustice, a national environmental law firm, filed the lawsuit against House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and Senate President Andy Gardiner on behalf of the Florida Wildlife Federation, St. Johns Riverkeeper, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida and Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation.

Gardiner, who said in a statement that he was limiting his comments until he could further review the lawsuit, supported the Legislature's Amendment 1 spending plan.

"The budget the Senate unanimously passed on Friday not only meets, but by every measure exceeds the requirements of Amendment 1, including the use of general revenue to add to 'doc stamp' funds set aside by the amendment to further fund important environmental initiatives clearly spelled out in the ballot language," Gardiner said in a statement.

The ballot initiative, which voters overwhelmingly approved in November, requires for the next 20 years that 33 percent of the proceeds from an existing real-estate tax, known as documentary stamps, go for land and water maintenance and acquisition across Florida.

Crisafulli, in a statement, repeated lines that a number of lawmakers have used to defend the spending plan.

"The Legislature complied with both the spirit and the letter of the Constitution, and we look forward to defending against this politically motivated lawsuit," Crisafulli said in his statement.

Last week, Rep. Matt Caldwell (R-North Fort Myers), who authored most of the House's water-related legislation this year, said conservation may never have been the intent of Amendment 1.

"I've come to the conclusion that this amendment was clearly intended to achieve a political purpose, not actually about conservation," Caldwell said. "That's the way it's being utilized. And it seems to be a coordinated effort from multiple environmental groups."

For the upcoming year, the funding under Amendment 1 for such land and water programs will grow to more than $740 million, from around $470 million in the current budget year that ends June 30.

Of the next fiscal year's money, about $550 million was expected to be available for land acquisition and maintenance after allowed debt-service payments, according to the lawsuit.

The Amendment 1 sponsor committee had proposed that natural-springs restoration receive $60 million and that $155 million go to the Florida Forever program. But the lawsuit contends such environmental priorities were shortchanged by lawmakers, with $38.5 million set aside for springs and $15 million for Florida Forever.

The amendment was spawned as funding diminished for the Florida Forever program, which authorizes lawmakers to spend up to $300 million a year for preservation.

The lawsuits points out that while lawmakers were devoting Amendment 1 dollars for uses the plaintiffs say are not allowed through the trust fund, the Legislature approved nearly $400 million in tax cuts for next fiscal year.

Guest said the tax cut package shows that in giving $400 million in tax breaks, "complying with the (Amendment 1) law was possible without breaking the bank."

St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman said going to court is necessary as the state needs to acquire land to protect the river.

"Right now, there are thousands of acres of wetlands and spring sheds throughout our watershed that need to be protected," Rinaman told reporters during the conference call.

In a release, Becky Ayech of the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida called the state funding levels "a political bait-and-switch."

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