TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CAPITOL NEWS SERVICE) - A lengthy legal battle over a voter-approved amendment to fund environmental programs isn’t likely to be settled anytime soon. A new appellate court ruling has put sponsors back to square one.
When 75 percent of voters approved Amendment 1 in 2014, many believed they were guaranteeing a funding source for the environment.
The amendment allocated 33 percent of revenues from real-estate documentary stamps to the state’s Land Acquisition Trust Fund.
“We want restored Florida Forever funding, which was $300 million. We want Everglades restoration, which was $200 million, and we want some more money going to land management,” said Aliki Moncrief with the Florida Conservation Voters.
Instead of spending the money to purchase and maintain environmental lands, the Legislature used much of it to cover things like administrative costs. Lawmakers’ spending choices spurred a lawsuit from environmental groups like The Florida Wildlife Federation.
"The Legislature has a history of ignoring what people put in the constitution. They just shifted this money to use it as an environmental slush fund,” said FWF President Preston Robertson.
Despite an initial court victory in 2018 which found 185 appropriations totaling more than $420 million unconstitutional, the groups are now facing a major setback. An appellate court sent the case back to the trial court without deciding whether the funds are being misused.
For environmental groups, it’s a major disappointment.
“We're going back to trial and having to argue this all over again,” said Robertson.
The appellate court focused its decision on a narrow aspect of the initial ruling. It rejected the original judge’s determination that Amendment 1 funds could only be spent on lands purchased after the amendment took effect in 2015.
For the time being, lawmakers will still be free to use Amendment 1 money how they see fit, including in the legislative session that begins in January.
However, Moncrief said it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.
“They could fix all of this by passing a budget that actually allocates more funding to programs like Florida Forever and not to business as usual expenses,” said Moncrief.
The court battle is now four years old and there’s no clear end in sight, but the clock is ticking. The amendment is set to expire in 2035.