Two teams of lawyers – one for conservation groups and the other representing the state – squared off at the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee Tuesday. The legal argument was over exactly what voters expected in 2014 when they approved the Water and Land Conservation amendment to the Florida Constitution, a ballot initiative that won 75 percent approval in 2014.
The environmental groups sued when the Florida Legislature started raiding the land conservation land-buying money and using it for other things – like buying vehicles and paying insurance premiums and salaries – operating costs that normally come from the state’s big pot of tax dollars, the General Revenue fund. The money comes from a documentary tax on real estate transactions.
Lawyers for state agencies, the Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis argued that the Water and Land Conservation amendment has language calling for the state “to acquire, restore, improve, and manage conservation lands,” and that the word “management” means the state has more leeway as to where it spends the money.
The environmental groups disagreed. Attorney David Guest, representing the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Florida Defenders of the Environment, Sierra Club, St. Johns Riverkeeper and the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, said the state has been using the conservation money like an “all-purpose slush fund.”
The groups are also represented by the nonprofit law firm Earthjustice.
Attorney Joe Little, representing Florida Defenders of the Environment, asked: “Did the voters, in fact, intend when voting to approve the purchase of new lands, or did they not?” or, he asked, “is it to permit the Legislature to do anything it wants to with the money?”
It’s not known when Judges Joseph Lewis Jr., Scott Makar and Ross Bilbrey will rule on the case.
In an earlier court battle, environmentalists won when Circuit Judge Charles Dodson ruled that legislators had defied voters’ will. The state appealed that decision, sending the case to the First District Court of Appeal.
Florida Forever, the state’s conservation land buying program, used to be a national leader, spending $300 million per year to preserve wild lands. But the Legislature started starving the program, so conservationists took their case to the people to enshrine land-buying dollars into the Florida Constitution. Five years later, they are still in court.