Recently, the environmental advocacy organizations serving as plaintiffs in two lawsuits over state spending on land and water conservation and preservation agreed to consolidate their cases, a judicious move that hopefully will lead to a quicker court ruling — before the Legislature once again violates the people’s intent on Amendment 1’s mandates.
The successful citizens’ petition drive and subsequent overwhelming voter approval of the Water and Land Legacy Amendment in 2014 failed to convince the state Legislature to play fair.
The amendment requires that a third of the documentary stamp revenue, generated from real estate sales, be spent “to acquire, restore, improve and manage conservation lands,” forests, wetlands, fish and wildlife habitat and the protection of water quality and resources.
But in 2015 the Legislature misspent some of the money, distorting the amendment’s directives by allocating almost half of the $740 million in revenue for salaries and operations of the agencies directed with implementing the mandates, the lawsuits state.
A repeat this year should not occur, but only a favorable ruling will ensure that.
Seventy-five percent of voters approved Amendment 1 in retribution for the demolition of Florida Forever, the state’s popular land conservation program that had preserved 2.5 million acres while receiving some $300 million annually.
Lawmakers began slashing its budget in 2008 and spending fell to only a miniscule fraction of the once potent allocation — down to $20 million in 2013.
One of the lawsuits takes aim at the Legislature, and the other targets state agencies charged with implementing the amendment’s mandates, including the Department of Environmental Protection and the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The plaintiffs include the Florida Wildlife Federation, Earthjustice, the Sierra Club and the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida.
The Legislature proposed merging the lawsuits since they focused on many identical issues and facts, and the plaintiffs have signaled agreement.
Legislative leaders defended the spending shift to offset recurring agency costs by claiming vague Amendment 1 language allowed leeway, though this clearly violates the intent of the 4.2 million voters who approved the measure, a landslide victory by a 75 percent margin.
Back then, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, asserted that it was up to lawmakers to “interpret the intent” of the amendment.
We think this follows an arrogant pattern by the Legislature.
In 2010, 63 percent of voters passed the two Fair Districts amendments, which barred lawmakers from drawing congressional and legislative districts favorable to particular candidates or parties.
But they did anyway, resulting in judicial decisions forcing the boundaries for state Senate and Congress to be redrawn.
Once again, the only remedy for citizens is judicial interpretation about how restrictive an amendment’s language is.
The unified Water and Land Legacy Amendment case will be argued next year with Floridians best served by a decision in the plaintiff’s favor before the Legislature finalizes the 2017-2018 budget.
This editorial was first published by the Bradenton Herald.