A Florida judge has ruled that state lawmakers improperly spent more than $300 million in revenues earmarked for conservation projects.

Leon County Circuit Court Judge Charles Dodson handed down the decision June 28 in favor of organizations whose complaints were consolidated into one case, including those filed in 2015 by the Florida Defenders of the Environment and the Florida Wildlife Federation.

The Legislature appealed the ruling July 25, after asking Dodson to disqualify himself from the case and seeking a rehearing. The judge rejected both requests.

Environmentalists allege that the Florida Legislature in passing the fiscal 2016 budget violated the will of voters who approved Amendment 1 in November 2014.

The Water and Land Conservation Amendment, which 75% of voters approved, required that 33% of documentary stamp taxes collected on real estate transactions be set aside in the Land Acquisition Trust Fund for specific purposes over two decades.

The set aside could be worth more than $12 billion over the life of the program today, according to estimates by groups in the legal challenge.

Dodson said the constitutional amendment clearly established uses for the revenue in the trust fund.

“The clear intent [of Amendment 1] was to create a trust fund to purchase new conservation lands and take care of them,” Dodson’s ruling said.

The law also allows the restricted trust fund revenues to be used for purchasing areas that protect water resources, making improvements on conservation land and water areas, and securing bonds for land and water purchases.

Environmentalists contended that lawmakers improperly used restricted trust fund revenues to pay for overhead such as salaries and benefits, administrative costs, and unrelated state operating expenses in violation of the constitutional amendment’s “unambiguous” language.

Dodson agreed with that argument.

“None of the appropriations from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund…contain restrictions on the use of the funds for the purposes allowable under that constitutional provision,” Dodson said, referring to appropriations lawmakers approved in the fiscal 2016 budget.

Dodson also said the Legislature also impermissibly comingled money from the trust fund with general revenues, which the constitutional amendment prohibited.

Lawmakers submitted no evidence, he said, to show that any of the appropriations challenged by the environmental groups were used for the management of any conservation lands acquired using trust fund revenues.

A spokesman for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, has said that Dodson’s ruling is a “clear abuse of judicial authority,” and that Corcoran expects the ruling to be overturned on appeal.

Attorney David Guest, who represented the Florida Wildlife Federation and other plaintiffs in the suit, said Dodson’s ruling on summary judgement just days before a trial was set to begin was good.

The ruling, Guest said, avoided a “contentious and stressful” legal battle with dozens of witnesses expressing opinions on what Amendment 1 meant and what it didn’t mean.

“The Legislature says this gives them very, very broad discretion so it didn’t require any changes whatsoever on what they decided to spend money on, before or after the amendment was approved,” Guest said. “My problem with that, and the judge articulated it as well, is that would mean this massive campaign and huge [voter] consensus was simply a change in bookkeeping. That can’t be right.”

The amendment contains “very specific things” that the revenues can be spent on and only those are permissible, he said, adding, “This says the revenue can only be spent to acquire land, improve it, to manage it and to restore it.”

Ben Watkins, an attorney and director of the Florida Division of Bond Finance, disagreed with Dodson’s ruling and said he expects the case will go to the Florida Supreme Court for a final determination.

“From our careful reading of the statute, we can clearly see that the management of land for environmental purposes is authorized by the constitutional amendment, which is exactly what the Legislature has chosen to do,” he said. “So things that used to be paid for with general revenue that related to managing land for environmental purposes are now being paid for with documentary stamp taxes.”

Watkins said some expenses are capitalized costs, which include certain employee wages.

For example, he said, that might mean paying the salary of a Department of Environmental Protection employee who works on environmental permitting issues and who also manages state lands.

“The environmental community wanted all of the [Amendment 1] revenue allocated to land cost, but that wasn’t the deal,” Watkins said. “The court will decide. That’s what this is all about.”

Ben Watkins, Florida bond finance director
“The environmental community wanted all of the [Amendment 1] revenue allocated to land cost, but that wasn’t the deal,” said Florida attorney and Division of Bond Finance Director Ben Watkins. Bloomberg News

Representatives of the various groups that filed the suits said they were disappointed that lawmakers decided to appeal Dodson’s ruling especially since three-quarters of voters supported the amendment.

Earthjustice attorney Alisa Coe said the appeal is “an attack on the most important conservation victory in Florida in years.”

“It’s disappointing that the state’s political leaders are spending the taxpayers’ money to fight what the taxpayers want,” said Coe, whose clients include the Florida Wildlife Federation, the St. Johns Riverkeeper, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, and the Sierra Club.

“Time is critical here,” she said. “Every day we spend debating this in court is another day we lose the opportunity to protect more land in Florida.”

Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation, said he believes Dodson’s ruling should be upheld through the appeals process.

“The ruling would provide funding for the purchase of important conservation lands that protect watersheds and connect habitats from the Panhandle to the Keys,” he said.

Dodson ruled that funds in the Land Acquisition Trust Fund set aside by Amendment 1 can’t be spent to improve, manage, restore natural systems, or enhance public enjoyment of non-conservation lands of water, or for any non-conservation purpose, without regard to when the state acquired the land or water area.

The ruling also said that no appropriation from the restricted trust fund revenues can be made to any agency or entity that receives funding from any other source, such as the general revenue fund, without clear language limiting the use of the trust fund money to the purposes authorized by the constitutional amendment.

Agencies that spend money from the trust fund also must track expenditures to ensure they are in compliance with the amendment.

Dodson found nearly 200 individual expenditures to be unconstitutional. The Legislature approved those expenditures by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Department of Environmental Protection, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Department of State.

Guest, who represented plaintiffs in the suit, said his clients are not seeking to get money back at this stage of the proceedings.

The strategy was to focus initially on defining the meaning of the constitutional amendment, and to determine how decisions are made going forward, he said, adding that he also believes the case will end up before the Florida Supreme Court.

“This ought to be resolved quickly,” Guest said. “It bears on what [lawmakers] do in next year’s appropriations.”

The case is before the District Court of Appeal for the First District of Florida in Tallahassee. The case number is 1D18-3141.

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