A Tallahassee judge has affirmed the overwhelming intent of Florida voters by ruling that state lawmakers have failed to comply with a constitutional amendment that is supposed to provide a specific pot of money to buy and preserve endangered lands. The 2014 amendment has been subverted by legislators who use the money as a slush fund to pay for other priorities — denying the will of the people and robbing Florida’s most sensitive natural resources of a tool for preservation. The issue likely will be ultimately decided by the Florida Supreme Court, but the judge’s ruling sends the right message.
Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson sided with the environmental community in a lawsuit over whether lawmakers have complied with the Florida Water and Land Conservation ballot amendment as they use some of the money for staffing and other expenses. The measure, known as Amendment 1, was approved by 75 percent of the voters in 2014, and directs that one-third of the collections from the tax on real estate documentary stamps be sent to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund. In the 2018-19 budget that starts July 1, $100 million from the fund will go toward the Florida Forever land-buying program. But at least $160 million will be spent on overhead, which critics say was not the voters’ intent. David Guest, an attorney representing several environmental groups, called the judge’s ruling a “100 percent victory,” adding that the voters had spoken with a clear voice, and that “the Legislature has to comply with the law like everybody else.”
A spokesman for House Speaker Richard Corcoran faulted the ruling, saying he was confident it would be overturned on appeal. And an attorney for the Florida House and Senate said the judge should have relied on the written text of the amendment, rather than engage in the “pure speculation” of assessing the voters’ intent. It is clear by the campaign leading to the referendum in 2014 that voters looked at Amendment 1 as a means of going above and beyond current spending on the environment, and that the focus would be on land purchasing and preservation. But the text of the amendment was broad enough to portend the very abuse that culminated in a court case.
Voters may have envisioned a windfall for endangered lands, but the amendment provided for a wide range of uses. Beyond land buying, it allowed spending for conservation easements, water recharge areas and the preservation of beaches, shores, trails, working ranches, historic properties and urban park space, among other areas. It failed to wall off spending to land buying because advocates thought that including all of the above would broaden the measure’s political appeal, making it more likely to succeed at the polls. That gave the state an opening to direct some of the trust funds toward overhead. Only months after the measure passed, legislators moved to supplant more than $130 million in general revenue spending on the environment with Amendment 1 dollars. This bait-and-switch was predictable; lawmakers did the same thing with state lottery proceeds, which were supposed to enhance education spending. They have also done the same thing by redirecting money from trust funds for affordable housing.
Floridians who care about the environment and holding elected officials accountable may have won this round. But as much as the circuit court judge reflected voter sentiment, the higher courts will have the final say.
This editorial first appeared in the Tampa Bay Times.