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Guest Commentary: Whatever happened to Amendment 1?

By Staff | Nov 25, 2015

Remember Amendment 1?

That was the citizen-initiated Florida Land and Water Conservation Amendment to the Florida Constitution that was adopted by an overwhelming 75 percent of the votes cast in last November’s election.

According to the ballot summary, the amendment was intended to fund the Land Acquisition Trust Fund to “acquire, restore, improve, and manage conservation lands including wetlands and forests; fish and wildlife habitat; lands protecting water resources and drinking water sources, including the Everglades … by dedicating 33 percent of net revenues from the existing excise tax on documents for 20 years.”

The idea was to require the State Legislature to breathe new life into the Florida Forever program for conservation land acquisition — funding for which had almost dried up in recent years as the legislature turned its back on conservation spending, particularly for land acquisition.

Supported by one million voters

More that one million Florida voters signed petitions which won Amendment 1 a place on the November, 2014 ballot. The measure was overwhelmingly backed by voters here on Sanibel and Captiva.

Its passage meant that, during the 2015 legislative session, about $700 million should have been earmarked for conservation land acquisition and related expenditures — but that never happened.

A small fraction of that amount, about $55 million, was allocated for land acquisition. About $300 million was used to pay salaries to employees in state agencies like the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Agriculture, while the legislature approved tax cuts in excess of $400 million.

Legislature never

intended to comply

It appears our representatives in Tallahassee never intended to comply in good faith with Amendment 1.

Instead, they paid it lip service while using funds that should have gone to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund to balance the state budget and help fund a large tax cut.

The explanation from Tallahassee insiders was that the voters were hoodwinked by the people who drafted Amendment 1. The language is so broad and full of loopholes, they said, that the legislature was not bound to use the funds for land acquisition, but was free spend it on anything remotely related to conservation.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli was quoted in the Orlando Sentinel as saying “the legislature complied with both the spirit and letter of the constitution….” in allocating Amendment 1 funds.

I just reread the language of amendment 1 and don’t buy that argument at all. But what I think won’t matter in the long run. The Florida courts, and very likely the Florida Supreme Court, will decide what action Amendment 1 requires of the State Legislature.

Two lawsuits filed

There are currently two lawsuits pending in the Leon County Circuit Court that challenge the way in which Amendment 1 dollars are being spent.

The first–which was brought by three environmental groups, The Florida Wildlife Federation, St. Johns Riverkeeper and Florida Sierra Club–names the legislature and legislative leaders and seeks a declaratory judgment, in which they assert that $300 million was misallocated during the last legislative session and should be paid into the Land Acquisition Trust Fund.

Lawyers for the legislature have already made a motion to dismiss that suit, arguing that the courts have no authority to tell the legislature how it is to allocate and appropriate funds.

That argument might have more appeal if we were talking about purely discretionary spending — but we are not. The Florida Constitution now directs how the funds in question are to be spent.

Whether the legislature is ignoring a clear constitutional mandate should be a justiciable issue.

The second suit, filed in early November by Florida Defenders of the Environment, takes a different tack. It names the state agencies that were the recipients of Amendment 1 funds to use for salaries and other ordinary expenses and seeks to block their use of those funds for those purposes.

The intent appears to be to interpose an alternate theory on which to proceed just in case the courts accept the legislature’s argument that it can allocate funds as it sees fit without court interference.

Florida Supreme Court likely to decide

It’s too early to predict how all this will play out. The motion to dismiss in the first case will be heard in December and will likely be appealed regardless of who prevails.

Ultimately, the Florida Supreme Court will decide the fate of Amendment 1. There will be no resolution in time to influence appropriations during the upcoming legislative session.

The likelihood is that the legislature will continue to ignore the millions of Floridians who voted for Amendment 1 and apply the funds that should be earmarked for conservation land acquisition for other purposes, like balancing the budget or funding tax cuts.

The people of Florida spoke loudly and clearly at the polls last November by enacting Amendment 1 by a 75% vote margin. The legislature has chosen to misdirect funds the voters intended be used directly for land conservation. Let’s hope the courts send a clear message — that the legislature is not above the law.

Note: Mr. Schopp led the Amendment 1 petition drive on Sanibel.