The battle may be over, but the war is still underway. On June 15, 2018, advocates for our Earth community and future generations were awarded a victory in the fight for conservation in the state of Florida. In the consolidated cases of Florida Wildlife Federation, Inc. v. Negron and Florida Defenders of the Environment, Inc. v. Detzner, Judge Charles Dodson found for all Plaintiffs against all Defendants. However, an appeal is still on the horizon.
In 2014, the people of Florida voted overwhelmingly to add Section 28 to Article X of the Florida Constitution. 75% of voters supported funding the Land Acquisition Trust Fund to acquire, restore, improve, and manage conservation lands. Allison DeFoor, former vice chair of the Republican Party of Florida and former environmental advisor to Governor Jeb Bush explained, “Amendment 1 fulfills these principles: It ensures that our state dedicates adequate dollars into the most essential of public goods — protecting our waters and conserving our lands; it ‘lives within our means’ by ensuring that taxes aren’t raised to do so; and it provides an earnest return on investment for generations to come...”
The text of Amendment 1 is as follows (emphasis added)…
a) Effective on July 1 of the year following passage of this amendment by the voters, and for a period of 20 years after that effective date, the Land Acquisition Trust Fund shall receive no less than 33 percent of net revenues derived from the existing excise tax on documents, as defined in the statutes in effect on January 1, 2012, as amended from time to time, or any successor or replacement tax, after the Department of Revenue first deducts a service charge to pay the costs of the collection and enforcement of the excise tax on documents.
b) Funds in the Land Acquisition Trust Fund shall be expended only for the following purposes:
1) As provided by law, to finance or refinance: the acquisition and improvement of land, water areas, and related property interests, including conservation easements, and resources for conservation lands including wetlands, forests, and fish and wildlife habitat; wildlife management areas; lands that protect water resources and drinking water sources, including lands protecting the water quality and quantity of rivers, lakes, streams, springsheds, and lands providing recharge for groundwater and aquifer systems; lands in the Everglades Agricultural Area and the Everglades Protection Area, as defined in Article II, Section 7(b); beaches and shores; outdoor recreation lands, including recreational trails, parks, and urban open space; rural landscapes; working farms and ranches; historic or geologic sites; together with management, restoration of natural systems, and the enhancement of public access or recreational enjoyment of conservation lands.
2) To pay the debt service on bonds issued pursuant to Article VII, Section 11(e).
c) The moneys deposited into the Land Acquisition Trust Fund, as defined by the statutes in effect on January 1, 2012, shall not be or become commingled with the General Revenue Fund of the state.
The cases here challenged the constitutionality of appropriations from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund and expenditures by four state agencies including the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (DACS), the Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), and the Department of State. Judge Dodson agreed with the argument that the language of the Amendment is plain and unambiguous and that the funds in the Land Acquisition Trust Fund can only be spent for (1) the acquisition of conservation lands, and (2) the improvement, management, restoration and enhancement of public access and enjoyment of those conservation lands purchased after the effective date of the amendment. He concluded that the phrasing of the Amendment requires land first be acquired with Trust funds before it can be “managed or restored so that public enjoyment of them is enhanced.” This undercuts the Defendants’ argument that the funds were used for management and restoration of conservation lands, despite being in the General Fund. Amendment 1 plainly requires the acquisition of new conservation lands before such expenditures can be justified.
The Plaintiffs in these cases argued that the fund collected were misappropriated and used for unconstitutional purposes. Judge Dodson clarified, “Like all prohibitions on commingling, the purpose of this commingling prohibition is to prevent the money in the Land Acquisition Trust Fund from being used for other purposes. Commingling Land Acquisition Trust Fund money with other funds deprives them of their constitutionally restricted character.”
Because the Defendants did not provide any evidence that the challenged appropriations may have been used for the management of conservation lands purchased with funds appropriated from Article X, Judge Dodson found the appropriations to be unconstitutional and found for the Plaintiffs. He further set out that Agencies expending money from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund must track expenditures to ensure they are being made in compliance with Article X, Section 28 restrictions.
This is an important moment for the voters of Florida who have finally been heard on this issue. However, the case does not necessarily end here. Lawyers for the legislature have stated they will appeal the decision. This could take the form of a hearing before the District Court of Appeal or be taken directly to the Florida Supreme Court.
In either case, Floridians need to continue voicing their insistence that their legislators adhere to the Constitution of the state of Florida. It is imperative that Floridians contact their representatives and ask that this decision stand and the will of the people be respected.