Florida Politics

Lawsuit could be brewing against state over Amendment 1 funding

House and Senate leaders declared Sunday that they had set aside $55 million for buying new public land from a ballot measure that passed last year by 75 percent of voters.

It wasn’t until Monday that environmentalists realized lawmakers were setting aside far less, setting up a likely legal showdown over what exactly Amendment 1 means.

The problem: The ballot measure, Amendment 1, dedicated more than $700 million for conservation and preservation. Environmentalists had hoped that lawmakers would approve at least $300 million to buy conservation and preservation lands.

Instead, lawmakers carved up the money for other projects, including millions for an agricultural giant.

Sponsors of Amendment 1 said the weekend agreement earmarks only $17.4 million for the acquisition of parks and wildlife habitat under the state program Florida Forever.

“This is an insult to the 4.2 million voters who voted Yes for Amendment 1,” said Will Abberger, chairman of Florida Water and Land Legacy, the Amendment 1 sponsor committee. “Last November Florida voters to sent a loud and clear message to the legislature: make funding for conservation land acquisition a priority. The legislature is ignoring Florida voters.”

Abberger and Audubon of Florida executive director Eric Draper said they were exploring “all options”, which could include legal action against the Legislature for violating the intent of Amendment 1.

Even one of the top negotiators of the agreement, Senate Appropriations Chair Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said a legal challenge is certain.

“I’m not a lawyer, but in this world we live in today, I am confident of one thing and one thing only, and that is that there will be litigation,” Lee said.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli defended the Amendment 1 spending plan.

“The budget shows it covers the acquisition of land and water,” Crisafulli said. “That was the overall premise of Amendment 1, and I certainly believe that what we’ve put in play achieves that.”

Yet lawmakers want to spend about half the Amendment 1 money on projects and programs that have historically been paid for out of other parts of the budget. After Gov. Rick Scott signs a budget, it won’t be clear exactly how his Department of Environmental Protection will spend the money the Legislature allocated for it. Much of the spending plan is vague.

Line items like “state park facility improvements” could mean anything from conservation-minded infrastructure projects to building new bathrooms, Draper said.

Others have much clearer meanings. One particular line item will use Amendment 1 dollars to help Alico, an agricultural giant, hang onto a big contract for a controversial project called water-farming.

House and Senate budget negotiators agreed to include $13.65 million from the Amendment 1 funds for the water-farming project, which pays ranchers to hold back excess rainwater from filling up Lake Okeechobee. Critics call it akin to corporate welfare. An audit has found that paying private landowners to hold the water back is far more expensive for the taxpayers than using land already owned by the public.

That’s not what the Amendment 1 money was supposed to be spent on, said Estus Whitfield, environmental adviser to four governors who is now overseeing the Florida Conservation Coalition.

“Water-farming has always been in my mind something that benefits large landowners at very expensive prices for the public,” Whitfield said. “I was involved in a lot of discussions about Amendment 1, and water-farming never came up.”

Last year the agency in charge of the water-farming project, the South Florida Water Management District, ran out of money for its water-farming program. The money that agency was using came from the taxpayers who most benefited from the project, who live in the 16 counties of South Florida.

To keep the project rolling, and guarantee its own $120 million, 11-year contract would go through, Alico lobbied legislators to take money from all of the state’s taxpayers and spend it on water-farming.

Before last year’s session, and between last year and this year, Alico also took key legislative leaders on a four-hour helicopter ride around Lake Okeechobee that cost about $5,000, then donated thousands of dollars to their political action committees. Among those who took the rides and PAC donations: Sen. Lee.

Lee said Alico experts talked to him during the tour about the best way for the Legislature to spend the millions of dollars that would be generated by Amendment 1, as well as the water-farming project. A month later, Alico wrote a check for $10,000 to Lee’s PAC, the Conservative. In February, it wrote a second $10,000 check to Lee’s PAC.

Officials with neither Alico nor the South Florida water district wanted to comment Monday on the water-farming project collecting money from Amendment 1 because the budget is still not final.

Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @Michael Auslen. Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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