Four Florida citizen groups filed legal action today in their continuing case to stop state officials from taking the tax dollars that voters earmarked for land conservation buying and instead using the money to pay for existing employees and ordinary agency expenses.
The Florida Legislature used the money to pay for existing employees and ordinary agency expenses.
A huge majority—75 percent—of Florida voters approved the Water and Land Conservation Amendment to the state Constitution in November 2014. Its title was clear: “Dedicates funds to acquire and restore Florida conservation and recreation lands.”
The amendment did not impose any new taxes. It requires that, for the next 20 years, 33 percent of the proceeds from the already existing real estate documentary-stamp taxes go for land acquisition.
“State officials have misused these funds, plain and simple,” said Earthjustice Managing Attorney David Guest. “We are asking the court today to uphold the state Constitution. Floridians put an amendment into the Constitution directing the state to use these tax dollars to buy and restore conservation land. We don’t understand why the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott’s administration are shamelessly ignoring what 75 percent of us voted for. With this legal action, we are asking a judge to hold up the intent of Florida voters.”
Today’s action is part of a legal case filed in Leon County Circuit Court on behalf of the Florida Wildlife Federation, the St. Johns Riverkeeper, the Sierra Club, and the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida.
“We are going to keep fighting to make sure the Legislature does what we asked it to do,” said Florida Wildlife Federation Manley Fuller. “Floridians are hopping mad about this, and for good reason.”
The proceeds of the Land and Water Conservation Amendment totaled $750 million in the first year. But, as today’s request for summary judgment explains, instead of buying conservation land, the Legislature used the money to pay for existing employees and ordinary agency expenses at the Departments of Environmental Protection, State, Agriculture and Consumer Services, and at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The motion filed today states, in part:
“Floridians voted to dedicate tax revenues to land purchases and land restoration—not salaries of existing employees and ordinary expenses. There is no doubt about what Florida voters understood Amendment One to mean because they read the ballot title—‘Dedicates Funds to Acquire and Restore Conservation and Recreation Lands.’ Having read the ballot title and summary, Florida voters approved Amendment One by an extraordinary 75% margin.”
“It’s the case of The Will of the People vs. The Greed of the Legislature,” said Frank Jackalone of the Sierra Club. “We hope Florida’s courts will reject the Legislature’s power grab and uphold the voters’ decision to spend their tax dollars to protect and conserve Florida’s land and water forever.”
“There is a dire need to conserve and restore more Florida land and water for future generations,” said St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman. “It is heartbreaking to see voter-dedicated funds siphoned off on non-authorized expenses ignoring a 75% vote of Floridians.”