Our state political leaders should be ashamed. In twisting the intent of Amendment 1, they have brazenly ignored the will of Florida voters.
But the ballot initiative, born of a wish to keep lawmakers from raiding money set aside to purchase and preserve Florida lands, was subverted and misappropriated by state legislators.
Now state environmentalists are fighting back with a lawsuit to stop this from happening next year. They deserve our support.
In a bold move, they are suing the Florida Legislature, Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island. Both leaders defend their actions. True, vague Amendment 1 wording may give them leeway, but the intent of voters was always clear: Acquire land and preserve it. Period.
The lawsuit says lawmakers violated the state Constitution by misusing money set aside from fees on real-estate transactions for land acquisition and conservation through Amendment 1.
Supporters of the ballot initiative want a judge to declare exactly what lawmakers can and can’t do with the money. In years to come, Floridians, including legislators and governors, definitely need such clarification.
The environmental groups suing say almost half of the $740 million generated by the environmental initiative this year will go to salaries and operations, not land purchases. The Legislature, the suit says, “defied the constitutional mandate” in spending less than half of the money for the purposes intended by millions of Florida voters. What a betrayal.
It all began with a wonderful idea back in November, when environmental activists sold Amendment 1 to Florida voters. The amendment — endorsed by the Miami Herald Editorial Board and other newspapers — would set aside one-third of the tax on real-estate documents for conservation efforts ranging from land purchases to restoration programs.
Environmentalists said it was a way to force lawmakers to boost environmental funding and prevent them from raiding such allocations, as they had done with the Florida Forever fund during the 2008 economic downturn.
A whopping 75 percent of voters thought it was a good idea. The Legislature then chose to snub them.
Florida Wildlife Federation President Manley Fuller said, “The Legislature took the money and used it for things it should not be spent on. This is a slap in the face to Florida voters, and it should not stand.”
The 2015-16 budget siphons existing money from the environment to other areas and uses the new money to replace it. Amendment 1 should not follow the path of the Florida Lottery.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Earthjustice, the Florida Wildlife Federation, St. Johns Riverkeeper and the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, can’t do anything about the budget approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Scott last week. But the groups want to rein in the Legislature for future budgets. They want the Amendment 1 funds to be used only for buying, improving and maintaining land and water resources. Period.
Ironically, the Legislature found room in the budget for tax cuts, a major priority for Gov. Scott, but didn’t increase spending on the environment, the groups say.
If state political leaders don’t respect the will of voters, those voters should respond when those legislators next ask the electorate to let them keep their jobs.