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Judge: Legislature Wrongly Diverted Money Meant for Conservation

In the budget year that begins July 1, $100 million from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund will go toward the Florida Forever land-acquisition program, which has been unfunded in past years. But at least $160 million will be spent on agency overhead. (Pixabay)
In the budget year that begins July 1, $100 million from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund will go toward the Florida Forever land-acquisition program, which has been unfunded in past years. But at least $160 million will be spent on agency overhead. (Pixabay)
June 18, 2018

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In a blow to the legislative branch, a judge in Tallahassee has ruled that Florida lawmakers wrongly diverted money meant for buying and preserving environmentally sensitive lands.

Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson on Friday sided with environmental groups in the lawsuit about whether lawmakers defied the 2014 Florida Water and Land Conservation initiative known as Amendment 1.

Attorney David Guest, who represents the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club and other groups, called the ruling a victory because after 75 percent of voters approved the constitutional amendment, he said lawmakers started nitpicking to avoid following the will of the people.

"They had looked at commas and they had come up with exotic definitions of words and ways of reading that, that made it so that they could do anything they wanted, and what they wanted to do was no buying land," he points out.

Fred Piccolo, a spokesman for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, called the ruling a "clear abuse of judicial authority." He added that he's confident it will be overturned on appeal.

Guest expects the case will be sent directly to the state Supreme Court for a final decision.

Amendment 1 was supposed to send 33 percent of revenues from a tax on real estate documentary stamps to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund.

However, since its passage, each year legislators have directed at least $200 million to the Everglades, $64 million to a reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area, $50 million to natural springs and $5 million to Lake Apopka, according to News Service of Florida.

Guest says the ruling affirms the intent of voters.

"The constitution means exactly what everybody thought it meant on the day they voted for it, which was this was to reinstate the land acquisition program that had been going full throttle for 50 years in Florida," he states.

However, in representing the House and Senate, attorney Andy Bardos said the court's decision should be based on the written text of the amendment, not a perceived intent of the voters.

The ruling now postpones a weeklong trial planned for July.

As they prepare for the next steps, Guest says much of the credit for his clients’ victory comes thanks to University of Florida law professor Joseph Little, who worked on behalf of Florida Defenders of the Environment.

Trimmel Gomes, Public News Service - FL