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Bill of goods

By Staff | Jul 1, 2015

And so it begins.

Saying state legislators pretty much spit upon the voter-approved constitutional amendment directing certain tax dollars be used for conservation, Earthjustice has filed a lawsuit to compel compliance with the Water and Land Conservation Amendment.

The suit filed this week in Leon County Circuit Court on behalf of three conservation groups maintains our elected officials ignored a “constitutional mandate to appropriate the monies defined in Amendment 1 to the acquisition, improvement, and maintenance of conservation and recreation lands. Instead of complying with the mandate of Amendment 1 and in defiance of its constitutional obligations created by that Amendment, the Legislature misappropriated over $300 million of Amendment 1 funds, devoting those funds to uses not allowable for the Land Acquisition Trust Fund. At the same time, the Legislature approved tax cuts in excess of $400 million,” the filing states.

“The constitutional amendment is clear,” said Earthjustice attorney David Guest in a prepared statement announcing the filing of the suit. “A third of the tax on real estate deals is to be used to prevent every last inch of Florida land from getting chewed up by development. But most lawmakers are simply not listening. That’s why we have to go to court.”

The lawsuit seeks a declaratory judgment finding that the Legislature has violated the Florida Constitution by misappropriating Amendment 1 funds, the filing states.

The Associated Press reports that legal counsel for the state, which maintains the legislative budget is compliant, looks forward to the fight.

We do not.

One, from an economic standpoint, it is seldom a good thing for the taxpayers when government entities become embroiled in litigation, even on those taxpayers’ behalf.

Lawsuits are costly and, while seated politicians tend to always think “there’s more of that where it came from” when it comes to “revenue,” those who provide it are no collective golden goose. We, far too often, are little more than a much-plucked chicken.

Two, to the state’s argument that the appropriation of the Amendment 1 fee revenues meets “both the spirit and the letter” of the constitutional amendment’s intent, we have one word: bushwa.

Let us recap.

Seventy-five percent of the voters approved the constitutional amendment that for the next 20 years earmarked 33 percent of the proceeds from real estate documentary stamp taxes for “the acquisition, improvement, and maintenance of conservation and recreation lands.”

For the upcoming budget year, that’s an estimated $740 million plus.

According to the suit filed on behalf of Florida Wildlife Federation, St. Johns Riverkeeper, Inc. and the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, the budget approved by the House and Senate fails to properly allocate funds to the Land Acquisition Trust. They call that the “heart” of the Florida Forever program, the intended focus of revenue dedicated by Amendment 1.

“However, almost half of the money appropriated from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund in the Legislature’s 2015 appropriations bill is directed for purposes that fall outside the permissible uses of that Trust Fund,” the suit states.

Finally, to the state-tendered premise that somehow the voters didn’t know what they were voting for – that somehow it is the environmental groups that sold the voters this bill of goods – we have a question. Why did the elected officials so opposed to the amendment not just say “Guess what? The amendment language you think provides a funding source for the purchase and maintenence of conservation and recreation lands really lets us continue to spend the money on anything we think we can stick a conservation tag on. That includes using the money to pay for the operation of state agencies that currently are funded with other tax dollars.”

The amendment would have withered on the ballot.

But then the environmental groups would have hardened the language and brought it back – something its opponents didn’t want.

How much better to not only ignore the voters, but to blame them for their own stupidity.

We thank the groups that have challenged the budget appropriations that ostensibly implement the mandates of Amendment 1.

They do not.

And environmentalist or not, that should bother every voter who took time to cast a ballot.

– Reporter editorial