By Jenny Staletovich
Saying lawmakers defied the state constitution, three environmental groups sued the Florida Legislature Monday, claiming they ignored an amendment overwhelmingly approved by voters in November to conserve the state's disappearing wilderness and protect its water supplies.
"Instead of complying with the mandate of Amendment 1... the Legislature misappropriated over $300 million," the lawsuit claims. "At the same time, the Legislature approved tax cuts in excess of $400 million."
The amendment, approved by 75 percent of voters after a statewide campaign by environmentalists, is expected to generate about $743 million next year from taxes collected on real estate transactions. But last week, lawmakers passed a budget that spends just $55 million to acquire land and $50 million to restore springs. Legislators set aside a far larger sum, $224 million, for state agency salaries and operations. Gov. Rick Scott has until June 30 to approve the budget.
Going into the session, environmentalists had fought lawmakers plans to use the money to plug holes in the state budget, lobbying hard to win backing for the purchase of 46,000 acres owned by the U.S. Sugar Corp.
That land was part of a deal negotiated by Scott's predecessor, Charlie Crist, that could be used for a massive reservoir needed to move water into the southern Everglades. After lawmakers wouldn't budge, environmentalists pushed for other land purchases without success.
"The Legislature complied with both the spirit and the letter of the Constitution, and we look forward to defending against this politically motivated lawsuit," House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said in a statement Monday. The lawsuit, filed by Earthjustice, names Crisafulli and Senate leader Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.
In the suit, David Guest, an Earthjustice attorney in Tallahassee, argues that the Florida Supreme Court made clear the intended use for the money when justices reviewed the amendment before the election: to create a specific source of tax dollars for the state's Land Acquisition Trust Fund. Guest claims the 50-year-old trust fund has long had specific uses and that after paying out $190 million in debt service on bonds for other land purchases, lawmakers had $550 million left over to buy more land.
Instead, the lawsuit claims the legislators budgeted just $15 million for the Florida Forever Program, a land-buying program started by former Gov. Jeb Bush. The bulk of the money was spent on other things, including $38.5 million set aside for springs restoration and $35 million for easements on rural land and to help restore the Kissimmee River.
On-going restoration projects for the Everglades, Lake Okeechobee, lakes, estuaries and beaches totaled $100 million, while lawmakers set aside $33 million on land management. State parks received another $20 million to improve facilities.
The suit -- filed in Leon County on behalf of the Florida Wildlife Federation and its president Manley Fuller, the St. Johns Riverkeeper group and the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida -- asks a judge to find that Gardiner and Crisafulli violated the state constitution and declare that money from the trust fund cannot be substituted to pay for other things.
"What we've done here is identified the things that are permissible and everything under the sun that's out there that's not," Guest said. "Give us a set of rules."
Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau reporter Michael Auslen contributed to this report.
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