Tuesday, January 04, 2022

In 2018, a judge ruled that lawmakers misused conservation land funds — a new judge tossed the case. (WLRN, Sierra Club press release)

When We, the People, passed Amendment 1, the Forever Florida constitutional amendment, in 2014, it was with the reasonable belief and expectation that our vote would count -- 1/3 of document tax funds were to go for buying conservation lands.

Our Attorney General, legislature and courts are obstacles, and the law has fallen into desuetude under Dull Republican misrule in Tallahassee. 

One willful judge has just undermined the work of the people of Florida.  

Forever Florida passed in 2014 with 74.96% of voters approving it -- some 4,238,739 people. 

We thank, praise and sincerely appreciate Sierra Club, several UF law professors and our current County Commission Chair I. Henry Dean for their work on the 2014 Amendment 1 constitutional amendment.   

This is one of several constitutional amendments undermined by the legislature, including universal primaries where all candidates are of the same party; restoring felon voting rights; and our constitutional right to Government in the Sunshine and Open Records.

We condemn the State Attorney General and Establishment for undermining Forever Florida and other state constitutional amendments passed by the people of the State of Florida.

Mossback mouthpieces' guerrilla warfare -- using our money to fight our rights in our courts -- is a stench in the nostrils of our Nation.  

This decision must be reversed by the Florida appellate courts.


The legislature must clean this up at its 60 day session, commencing January 11, 2022. 

See news story from WLRN and press release from Sierra Club.

Sierra Club press release:

Justice Delayed is Court-Sanctioned Justice Denied

Justice Delayed is Court-Sanctioned Justice Denied

Land Acquisition Trust Fund Case is Called for Time?

TALLAHASSEE, FL — Leon County Circuit Court Judge Layne Smith issued his order today in the Land Acquisition Trust Fund (LATF) case. Sierra Club Florida released the following statement in response: 

"The court today dismissed the case on the theory the case was filed in 2015 and was unreasonably delayed by the conservationists. The decision belies the facts:

  • the Conservationists won the case in 2018, but the win was reversed by the appeals court in 2019;
  • the case has hardly been languishing — today's order is the 633rd document filed in the case;
  • 140 documents have been filed in the case since the conservationist's win in 2018;
  • one year ago, the trial court ruled that the Conservationists were correct in their interpretation of the constitution and that the Legislature had narrowly escaped losing the case on summary judgment;
  • the Conservationists' repeated efforts to advance the case were rejected repeatedly by the new judge (see especially pages 4-5 in the case status memorandum); and
  • in March 2021, the same judge rejected the Conservationists' constitutional challenge to the legislature’s delaying strategy.   

Judge Layne Smith's decision affords the Florida Legislature the ability to use the tax money from the 2014 Constitutional Water & Land Conservation Initiative (Amendment 1) for anything from 1000 camouflage baseball hats gifted to farmers, DirectTV service, and computer monitors for DEP offices, to tens of millions of dollars for salaries and overtime having nothing to do with conservation or recreation lands, instead of spending that money to acquire and manage parks and other land for outdoor recreation and environmental services as voters intended. 

We are confounded by this new order. Judge Dodson, now retired, first decided that the obvious meaning of the state constitution was that the LATF was to be spent only to acquire and restore recreation and conservation land. Judge Smith did not find the opposite but rather, found that the case is moot because too much time has passed, and the Legislature has already spent the money in the Land Acquisition Trust Fund. 

This new order delivers the message that the will of the voters is meaningless. The court's decision avoids ruling on the Legislature's argument that there should be no significant confines on its spending to ensure that the money voters set aside for conservation is not used as a general slush fund.   

If this order stands, the Legislature will be free to thumb its collective nose at the will of the voters and arrogate to itself undeserved prerogatives as long as it can prolong the court process. This cannot be correct, and we will challenge this order. 

In 2014, the Florida Water and Land Legacy constitutional amendment was adopted by Florida voters, by a 75% margin, based on a ballot summary — the only thing voters saw when they cast their ballots — explaining that 33% of taxes on real estate sales would be put into the Land Acquisition Trust Fund and spent to acquire and restore Florida conservation and recreation land. On average, that would provide over $1 billion annually to acquire and restore parks and other outdoor recreation land, including sanctuaries for wildlife.  

And yet, from the adoption of the amendment to this day the Legislature has devoted less annual funding for acquiring and restoring conservation lands, in real dollar value, than the Florida legislature of over 30 years ago. This is especially egregious when considering the inextricable links between land conservation, water quality, and climate change mitigation.

Governor DeSantis' current budget is a case in point; he wants to devote millions of dollars to construct (1) the Everglades Agricultural Area Storage Reservoir, sure to become a deep cesspool of polluted water with nowhere to go, and (2) Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) wells near Lake Okeechobee, instead of acquiring and restoring the land that would treat and convey clean water south to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay.  These are not restoration projects but rather stop-gap measures that keep campaign contributors in the development, construction, and sugar industries happy and well-paid.  And yet the court says that our (the plaintiffs') claims "no longer present an actual case in controversy"?

The 2014 constitutional amendment would never have been drafted or adopted if the Legislature had not stopped acquiring desperately needed conservation land, thereby frustrating the public into supporting it. Now the same Legislature is frustrating the same public by ignoring the constitutional amendment.  

Sierra Club Florida calls on the Legislature to immediately drop their opposition to the lawsuit and get on with the job of protecting the environment and the heritage upon which Floridians and the state’s economy depends."

Background: To render its September 26, 2013, advisory opinion to the Attorney General on the title and ballot summary of the initiative petition, the Supreme Court had to consider the text of the amendment in order to determine its accuracy, and having done so, they held that "The title and summary are straightforward and accurate." Voters saw only this "straightforward and accurate" ballot title and a ballot summary, which stated that the funds would be used "to acquire, restore, improve, and manage conservation lands." 

The 2015 Legislature ignored the clear meaning of the title, "Dedicates Funds to Acquire and Restore Florida Conservation and Recreation Land" and the summary, and decided instead to spend most of the money on salaries and expenses of state employees, leading a coalition of conservationists, including the Sierra Club, to sue the legislature in an effort to stop the legislature from using the money as a slush fund.

A Leon County Circuit Judge decided that the money could be used only on new parks and conservation lands, but the First District Court of Appeals ruled in 2019 that expenditures were not restricted to newly acquired land. In 2020, when the case was sent back to the circuit court in Tallahassee, the court decided that the obvious meaning of the constitutional text allowed the money to be spent only on buying, restoring, and managing conservation lands — like parks or sanctuaries for wildlife.  

From WLRN:  

In 2018, a judge ruled that lawmakers misused conservation land funds — a new judge tossed the case

Image of pine rocklands
Tim Chapman
Miami Herald Archives
Amendment 1 was intended to protect more land, like imperiled pine rocklands, from development across Florida.

A Tallahassee judge threw out a long-simmering dispute Monday over whether state legislators misspent billions of dollars in real estate taxes — funds that were overwhelmingly approved by voters, nearly a decade ago, to buy conservation land.

In his ruling, Judge J. Layne Smith said conservationists had dragged their feet after having a victory overturned by an appeals court in 2018 and sent back to his court.

“The record reflects Plaintiffs did not prosecute this action with any urgency and the appropriations they are contesting have long since expired,” he wrote.

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The Sierra Club, part of a coalition of conservation groups battling lawmakers, said they were “confounded” by the new order after filling hundreds of documents in the case.

“Judge Layne Smith’s decision affords the Florida Legislature the ability to use the tax money for anything from 1,000 camouflage baseball hats gifted to farmers, DirectTV service, and computer monitors to tens of millions of dollars for salaries,” the Sierra Club said in a statement.

Passed in 2014, the Land Acquisition Trust Fund would have provided up to $1.6 billion a year to buy and save disappearing wild lands. With an overwhelming 75% approval, voters agreed to spend a third of real estate taxes over a decade to purchase land.

But the next year when lawmakers instead spent more than two thirds of the money on more mundane matters, including risk management insurance, Sierra Club and the other conservation groups sued. In 2018, they won their case.

“The clear intent was to create a trust fund to purchase new conservation lands and take care of them,” Leon County Judge Charles Dodson wrote.

But, the next year, an appeals court reversed the decision and sent it back to the lower court.

In his order Monday, Smith said conservationists failed to file for a temporary injunction to stop lawmakers from spending the money or take other procedural steps. Because lawmakers had already appropriated money from the trust fund, he also said the fight is essentially moot.

The Sierra Club, in its statement, said that rather than reject Dodson’s ruling, Smith essentially used a technicality to dismiss the case.

“This new order delivers the message that the will of the voters is meaningless,” the Sierra Club said in its statement.

In his proposed budget for the 2022-2023 fiscal year, Gov. Ron DeSantis has again proposed tapping into the fund for salaries, insurance, maintaining roads and bridges and controlling pollution on farmland.

The dispute also divided environmental groups after the plaintiffs argued the tightly-worded ballot question made clear the money was intended to add more conservation land to the state and did not include spending on existing land, much of which is included in Everglades restoration projects.

DeSantis has proposed just $100 million for buying conservation lands in his budget. By comparison, he’s proposed $660 million for Everglades restoration work and $195 million for projects that improve water quality.

You can read more stories like this one by signing up for our environment text letter. Just text “enviro news” to 786-677-0767 and we’ll send you a roundup of stories like this — and more — every Wednesday.

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