FL Supreme Court won’t hear appeal over alleged diversion of environmental land-buying money

Conservationists want more funding to protect natural springs and other sensitive waterways and land. Photo: Kelly DelValle

The Florida Supreme Court has decided to let stand a lower court ruling that allows the Legislature to divert money that 2014’s Amendment 1 ostensibly assigned only for purchasing sensitive land and maintaining it.

The justices declined this week to accept jurisdiction in the case, leaving the organizations plotting their next legal move.

“It looks like we’ll be headed back to trial court to try enforce the will of Floridians who voted overwhelmingly for land conservation,” said Alisa Coe, staff attorney for Earthjustice, one of the organizations involved in the litigation.

Additional litigants include the Florida Wildlife Federation and Florida Defenders of the Environment.

Amendment 1, overwhelmingly approved by voters, dedicates 33 percent of the state tax on real-estate transactions to the “acquisition and improvement” of environmentally sensitive land. The amendment specifies that the money “shall not be or become commingled with the general revenue fund of the state.” It took effect in 2015.

But, as the Phoenix reported last summer, “right off the bat, the Florida Legislature started raiding the land conservation land-buying money 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.”

Circuit Judge Charles Dodson in Tallahassee ruled from the bench in favor of the organizations. However, in a unanimous ruling on Sept. 9, a three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal concluded the money “is not restricted to use on land purchased by the state after 2015.”

However, the appeals court specified that it wasn’t approving any particular use of the money by the Legislature for other purposes, and told the trial court to consider that issue.