FROM THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
By JIM TURNER
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, December 3, 2015………. A Leon County judge Thursday removed a major part of a lawsuit that contests how lawmakers decided to spend money that voters approved last year for land buying and preservation.
However, an attorney for four environmental groups challenging the state’s spending called the ruling a victory.
“We’re in this case,” said David Guest, managing attorney for the environmental law firm Earthjustice. “They tried to take us down. The way I see this game right now is that we’re at the first half and it’s 14-to-nothing for the good guys.”
Circuit Judge George Reynolds accepted a motion from the state to dismiss part of the lawsuit that sought a court order requiring state Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater to transfer $237 million from the general-revenue fund to what is known as the Land Acquisition Trust Fund.
The environmental groups — the Florida Wildlife Federation, the St. Johns Riverkeeper, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida and the Sierra Club — contend the money was improperly diverted from conservation purposes to agency staffing and operational expenses.
Richard T. Donelan, an attorney for the chief financial officer, argued that such a court directive would go against the constitutional structure of state government.
“We are the executive branch, not the legislative branch,” Donelan said. “We cannot exercise fundamental legislative decisions about from where to take money to pay for expenditures of the state.”
The ruling doesn’t end the lawsuit, which is one of two that contends lawmakers during a 2015 special session misspent money from the 2014 ballot initiative known as Amendment 1. The initiative requires that 33 percent of the proceeds from an existing real-estate tax, known as documentary stamps, go for land and water maintenance and acquisition across Florida.
Guest was given 20 days to amend the lawsuit, which was filed in June. Guest said after the hearing the attempt to move the money to the trust fund may now be redirected at the Legislature.
Guest claimed victory as Reynolds denied a request by the state to dismiss the entire lawsuit, which also contends the House and Senate defied a constitutional mandate on spending the money for land and water conservation.
Representing the Legislature, attorney Andy Bardos argued the funding decisions are at the discretion of lawmakers.
After the hearing Bardos would only say, “We’re pleased that the court dismissed count two.”
Environmentalists have been disappointed that more of the money wasn’t allocated in the current year for land acquisition.
The second lawsuit, filed Nov. 12 by a Gainesville-based group, the Florida Defenders of the Environment, wants a Leon County circuit judge to block the Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of State, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission from spending the dollars in the current fiscal year.
The Florida House proposed Tuesday that at least 25 percent of the Amendment 1 dollars annually be used for Everglades restoration and other previously approved South Florida water projects. Otherwise the House and Senate are expected to take a similar approach to allocating Amendment 1 dollars next year.