State Officials Sued (Again) for Misusing Amendment 1 Funds

Curry, Christopher
Christopher Curry

Florida Defenders of the Environment is suing state agencies to block their spending of what they believe are misappropriated funds from Amendment 1.  The article by Christopher Curry was published in the Gainesville Sun on Wed. Nov. 11, and can be seen in its entirety here.

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Second environmental group sues state over Amendment 1

By Christopher Curry

Staff writer

Published: Tuesday, November 10, 2015 at 5:29 p.m.

Last Modified: Tuesday, November 10, 2015 at 5:29 p.m.

Local environmental group Florida Defenders of the Environment has sued the state for misusing hundreds of millions of dollars that last November’s Amendment 1 referendum set aside for the state’s conservation land acquisition trust fund.

In the case, filed Monday in circuit court in Leon County, the environmental group accuses state officials of violating the water and land conservation constitutional amendment, and therefore the state Constitution, by using some $237 million of the $740 million set aside by the voter-approved referendum on salaries and benefits, best management practices for agricultural businesses, capital projects, vehicles, insurance and other items unrelated to conserving land and water resources or increasing public access to them.

“The legislature may not make appropriations from a fund that has a specifically designated use prescribed in other portions of the statutes or constitution for purposes that do not serve that designated use,” Florida Defenders of the Environment board member Joe Little, a University of Florida law professor emeritus who wrote the complaint, said in a press release.

Florida Defenders’ argument is that Amendment 1 places funds in the Land Acquisition Trust Fund for explicit uses — buying and restoring conservation lands — and that the legislature can’t spend that money for other things.

The lawsuit is the latest development in the ongoing dispute environmental and conservation groups have with how the Legislature is spending money from the 2014 referendum, which voters approved with 75 percent support.

Only $15.1 million went to Florida Forever, the conservation land-purchasing program that the groups that pushed to get Amendment 1 on the ballot sought to restore to its pre-recession spending levels.

Upset by that, the Florida Wildlife Federation, St. Johns Riverkeeper, the Florida Sierra Club and other environmental groups have an active lawsuit against the Legislature and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater saying the state “wrongfully diverted at least $237 million in those funds to pay for general state expenses not allowable under the amendment.”

That lawsuit asks the court to order the state to transfer state general fund money to the land acquisition trust fund to “repay” it.

The Florida Defenders of the Environment lawsuit has the same goal but takes a different approach, said executive director Thomas Hawkins, a former Gainesville city commissioner.

Instead of the Legislature, the heads of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Department of State, Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission are the named defendants.

Instead of asking the court to order state officials to re-appropriate the funds, Florida Defenders of the Environment wants an injunction to block the state agency heads from spending the money as approved in this year’s budget.

The late Marjorie Harris Carr formed Florida Defenders of the Environment in 1969. The group won a successful battle against the Cross Florida Barge Canal, which became the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway, and also focuses on protecting and restoring the Ocklawaha River.

“We’re not the biggest organization in the state,” Hawkins said. “We don’t have the broadest reach.”

But he said the current and former UF faculty members on the organization’s board gives Florida Defenders of the Environment a “level of expertise” other groups may not have.

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