Plaintiffs challenging the state’s environmental funding under a new constitutional amendment agreed to join forces Monday.
An array of environmental advocacy groups had filed suit over the Water and Land Legacy Amendment, also known as Amendment 1. The constitutional change, approved by voters in 2014, mandates state spending for land and water conservation.
But advocates, including Florida Wildlife Federation and Sierra Club, say lawmakers wrongly appropriated money for, among other things, “salaries and ordinary expenses of state agencies” tasked with executing the amendment’s mandate.
One suit targeted the Legislature; another went after the agencies, including the Department of Environmental Protection and the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The Legislature moved to consolidate the cases in the name of “judicial efficiency and consistent results,” said Andy Bardos, a GrayRobinson lawyer representing lawmakers and a former special counsel to past Senate President Mike Haridopolos.
The suits shared many of the same facts and issues, he told Circuit Judge Charles W. Dodson at a hearing in Tallahassee: “Efficiency argues for consolidation.”
David Guest, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, told Dodson that the argument was so compelling, “consolidation seems to be in the cards.”
Dodson said he’d pass on formally ruling on the consolidation motion if the various plaintiffs instead merged their complaints into one suit. They agreed to do so by Jan. 6.
Joseph Little, the attorney representing Florida Defenders of the Environment, said his clients believe state money under the amendment should be going to buy land for conservation. Little also is the group’s vice president.
“Our problem is, there are words in the amendment that need judicial interpretation to know how restrictive that language is,” said Little, a retired University of Florida law professor and constitutional law expert.
Amendment 1 requires state officials to set aside 33 percent of the money from the real estate “documentary stamp” tax to protect Florida’s environmentally sensitive areas for 20 years. This year, that number is expected to total more than $740 million.
The amendment, which needed a minimum of 60 percent to pass, got a landslide of nearly 75 percent, or more than 4.2 million “yes” votes.