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Conservationists cry foul on Amendment 1 funding

By Staff | Jun 26, 2015

Florida voters have been betrayed.

At least that’s what former Lee County commissioner Ray Judah contends happened with passage of the state budget in the last week. Lawmakers, including those representing southwest Florida districts, approved some $79 billion in spending that environmentalists say largely ignores conservation and water quality.

Conservationists say funding approved by state voters in November to purchase large chunks of land for water quality projects has been diverted or restricted, violating the intent of Amendment 1, the measure to boost spending on land and water conservation in Florida.

Instead of directing millions in Amendment 1 funding to restrict freshwater overflow in the Caloosahatchee River into the Gulf of Mexico, for instance, lawmakers used the funds for payroll at agencies that oversee Florida environmental programs.

Amendment 1 was intended to directly benefit Florida waterways, Judah said, limiting overflows that in 2013 flushed algae and storm runoff into the Gulf. Resorts in Sanibel and Captiva that summer lost millions in visitor spending and goodwill, island businesses and elected officials complained. If not directly violating Amendment 1, Judah said, new budget spending skirted the spirit of the measure approved by some 4 million state voters that earmarked 33 percent -or about $18 billion to $20 billion over the next 20 years -from a real estate stamp tax to help the state purchase lands for conservation and water quality.

State lawmakers, said Judah, coordinator with the Florida Coastal and Ocean Coalition in Fort Myers, “conveniently ignored the will of the people. The Legislature passed up a unique opportunity to close the deal.”

Judah is far from alone in his criticism of the state. Environmental groups have filed a lawsuit maintaining that more than $300 million that the Legislature budgeted this year does not follow the guidelines of Amendment 1. The lawsuit was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Florida Wildlife Federation, St. Johns Riverkeeper and the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida.

The suit contends almost half the money appropriated from the Land Acquisition Trust fund falls outside the permissible uses for the fund.

State conservationists argue that while of a portion of the Amendment 1 funding from real estate taxes is allocated for programs that include beach restoration and projects aimed at helping the state’s freshwater springs. the money was also used to pay for salaries at several state agencies that oversee environmental programs and oversee existing state-owned lands and forests.

They included only $17.4 million for Florida Forever, the state’s main land conservation program.

Gov. Rick Scott also trimmed more than $400 million from the $79 billion budget, approving a tax cut for added measure.

“The legislature did not do what the amendment requires,” said Florida Wildlife Federation President Manley Fuller said in a prepared statement released Monday that announced the lawsuit. “Seventy-five percent of Florida voters approved this amendment last November, and they were clear that they want the state to buy conservation land. Instead, 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.”

Florida legislative leaders, including those in southwest Florida, have defended the way they handled conservation spending. They maintained that they used the money in ways permitted by the amendment.

“The Legislature complied with both the spirit and the letter of the Constitution, and we look forward to defending against this politically motivated lawsuit,” said House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, a Merritt Island Republican, in a statement to the Associated Press.

As speaker, Crisafulli is listed as one of the defendant s in the suit.

Judah said directing Amendment 1 funding to programs and payroll not directly relating to water quality in Florida amounted to playing loose with the intent of the measure. Instead of funding the purchase of an estimated 46,800 acres southwest of Lake Okeechobee to mitigate pollution-fraught discharges while benefitting Everglades restoration, for instance, the politicians in Tallahassee instead diverted the funding to operating expenses, a loophole in the measure, he said.

“It is unfortunate that the legislature is looking at siphoning off money that was intended to purchase environmentally sensitive land pursuant to the language of the Florida Constitutional amendment and use that money to pay for regulatory agency operations,” Judah said. “This is a bait-and-switch type of tactic similar to what they did to the lottery.”

Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, is scheduled to address the Responsible Growth Management Coalition on water quality issues on June 30. The meeting, which is open to the public, will be held from from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Wa-Ke Hatchee Rec Center, 16760 Bass Road, Fort Myers.