Commentary

Florida legislators get away with their Amendment 1 heist — for now

Judge rules land-buying money’s gone, so there’s no way to hold lawmakers to account for breaking law

January 13, 2022 7:00 am

Still from an ad advocating for 2014’s Amendment 1, reserving real estate taxes for an environmental land-buying program.

The Florida Legislature convened Tuesday for its regular 60-day session, so I hope you boarded up your windows and got your family to a shelter.

This is not a traditional storm but rather a time when, as Orlando Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell put it recently, “Tallahassee will be filled with more manure than a pasture full of cows with irritable bowel syndrome.”

The session opened with its usual pomp: The chamber was filled with flowers, the governor gave a speech in which he nearly wrenched his shoulder patting himself on the back, and, of course, the state’s newspaper columnists lined up for the ritual Casting of Aspersions.

Florida columnists traditionally take a dim view of our legislators and their intellect, energy, and morality (or lack thereof). The start of every session calls forth more grievances than Festivus. The peak for aspersion-casting was probably that time in 2016 when Carl Hiaasen referred to the session as “the annual festival of whores.”

But not this columnist! No sirree! I love our Legislature. I hasten to add that it’s not just because its members give us journalists so much wacky stuff to write about — for instance, that time a couple of them had the bright idea of putting golf courses into our state parks.

I love them because, unlike those other columnists, I see them for what they really are.

Master criminals.

A lot of people love to read true crime books, watch true crime TV shows, and listen to true crime podcasts. I sometimes write about true crime myself (and in Florida, you better believe there have been some wild crime stories).

But you need look no further than Tallahassee for a masterclass in true crime. Our lawmakers are expert lawbreakers.

“But wait,” you say, “these are not devious Professor Moriarty types. They are not geniuses when it comes to crime or anything else more complicated than collecting campaign contributions. They’re more like a bunch of mor — uhhh, I mean the opposite of geniuses. How can you call them master criminals?”

Simple, my friend. They pulled off a multimillion-dollar heist, and a judge just last week said they should be allowed to get away with it.

Here’s how they pulled it off:

In 2014, 75 percent of Florida voters approved an amendment to the state Constitution that said the Legislature had to spend a certain amount of money buying environmentally sensitive land. The measure was expected to raise $22 billion over the next two decades.

You might think that that lopsided win — a far greater margin of victory than any politician on the ballot got — would show Florida legislators that the public REALLY likes preserving environmentally sensitive land. You might think they would bow to that overwhelmingly popular sentiment and scramble to do the voters’ bidding. You might think they would paint themselves with a couple of coats of green latex and declare their own support for saving the environment.

Excuse me, I have to pause here for a moment to laugh at your naivete for thinking that. (Loud guffaws continue for several minutes.)

Florida’s legislators care nothing for what the voters think! Thanks to the way they’ve drawn their districts, they seldom have to truly face the voters anyway. Heck, last year they wouldn’t even let the public in to see them at work.

No, our legislators responded to the passage of what was known as Amendment 1 by simply ignoring it. They looked at what the voters told them to do and said, “Nope!” They spent the money, but not on what they were supposed to spend it on.

“Legislators [spent] more than $300 million in Amendment 1 revenues on paying salaries for parks, the Department of Agriculture, the forest service, and other state agencies, as well as for … other operational expenses such as new vehicles and maintenance,” Florida Today reported. They spent more than $1 million on “an insurance fund to protect state environmental and agricultural [agencies] from federal civil rights act violations.”

Environmental groups went to court to force the Legislature do what it was supposed to do. In 2018, they won. Unfortunately, an appeals court sent that touchdown back to the line of scrimmage on a technicality. Then, last week, a Leon County circuit judge tossed out the lawsuit.

“The record reflects plaintiffs did not prosecute this action with any urgency and the appropriations they are contesting have long since expired,” Leon County Circuit Judge Layne Smith wrote in his order.

Did you get that? The Legislature had already spent the money for that one year, therefore it was too late to stop them from it, even though they have continued doing the same thing over and over. Sorry, there’s nothing left to fight about, the judge said.

I can’t wait to see what happens when a bank robber is hauled before Judge Smith and argues that he should not have been arrested because he already spent the loot on a Lamborghini.

That’s the mark of a master thief, my friends — not that they don’t get caught, but that they’re allowed to skate away as smoothly as Brian Boitano running through an Olympic routine.

Saving swamps, forests, and beaches

Florida first began buying land for preservation waaaaaay back in 1964, more than half a century ago.

The land-buying programs have gone by different names — CARL (Conservation and Recreational Lands), Preservation 2000, Florida Forever — but the intent has always been the same: Spare a little acreage from being swallowed up by our voracious development machine. Starting in 1990 and running for a couple of decades, the state spent $300 million on that noble effort.

Using money drawn from taxes on real estate transactions, known as documentary stamps (“doc stamps” for short), these programs saved millions of acres of forests, rivers, swamps, lakes, and beaches. If you’ve hiked or paddled or picnicked or camped in Florida’s award-winning state parks or state forests, chances are you’ve crossed some of that property the state acquired. Eco-tourism benefited bigtime.

The land-buying programs kept getting renewed because they have proven both popular and successful, which you really can’t say about a lot of things in Florida state government.

Even conservative, pro-property rights advocates liked this approach, contending it was better for the state to buy land outright than to regulate its use.

But times change. Attitudes that were once in fashion disappear the way orange leisure suits did when the disco era ended.

During the 2008 mortgage meltdown, real estate sales dwindled so there weren’t as many doc stamps sold. Meanwhile, the Legislature cut the land-buying fund. It was as if the legislators were trying to give the developers a head start on buying land that was on the preservation list.

Turns out they were, and they had a doozy of a reason why.

They contended — with a completely straight face — that the dadburn gubmint had now bought up TOO MUCH of the state. Why, my goodness, they said, a quarter of all the land in Florida had been taken off the tax rolls. Surely everyone could see that was too darn much.

What they weren’t mentioning was that that one-quarter figure included not just state parks and forests but also military bases, state college campuses, and prisons. Unlike parks and forests, those facilities don’t generate a lot of tourism, especially that last one. This is why you so seldom see Florida postcards featuring the sun glinting off the razor-wire in Starke.

When Gov. Rick Scott took office, the state division in charge of the land-buying program became a target. Their funding was cut, their staffing trimmed back from 40 to 14 in just three years, and their focus was shifted away from buying property to trying to get rid of it.

The Scott administration’s hostility to saving land reached its peak, I think, in 2013. That’s when the phosphate giant Mosaic offered to donate the 4,100-acre Peaceful Horse Ranch to the state park system. The company said it would not only hand the state all that land for free but throw in $2 million for its upkeep.

And the state said no thanks.

A year later the voters passed Amendment 1, thus setting the stage for the Big Heist.

Suits to salute their genius

The ballot summary for Amendment 1 said the money would be used to, and I quote, “acquire, restore, improve, and manage conservation lands including wetlands and forests; fish and wildlife habitat; lands protecting water resources and drinking water sources, including the Everglades, and the water quality of rivers, lakes, and streams; beaches and shores; outdoor recreational lands; working farms and ranches; and historic or geologic sites.”

The Florida Supreme Court approved that wording before it was allowed on the ballot, to ensure the voters didn’t get confused.

Meanwhile, groups supporting Amendment 1 ran a TV ad that showed clouds scudding across the Everglades, a rainbow arching over a stand of mangroves, and a girl swimming in a spring.

“What’s more important than protecting Florida’s natural areas?” the ad’s narrator asked. “For water. For wildlife. For people.” Vote for Amendment 1, the ad said, if you want to “protect and restore” Florida’s “drinking water, lakes, beaches, lakes, rivers and springs.”

But after the measure passed, the Legislature turned out to have other ideas about how to spend all that money — ideas like using that cash to build new water plants and sewer plants, or to reconstruct eroding beaches in front of million-dollar homes.

After all, the legislators argued, who can say what the voters really had in mind? Maybe those people in the voting booths never read the summary or saw the TV ads. Maybe they really wanted that money spent on things like salaries.

“We should use common sense and solve the problems directly facing this state first,” one powerful state senator declared.

This is a pattern with the Florida Legislature. The voters, fed up with failures among their elected representatives, approved constitutional amendments creating a lottery to fund education, allowing ex-cons to get their voting rights back, and capping class sizes at a particular level. Then the Legislature ignored those votes and did whatever it wanted, even though disobeying the Constitution is illegal and, oh yeah, a violation of their oath of office.

But a law with no consequences is no restraint on bad behavior.

In 2015, the environmental groups that had gotten Amendment 1 passed sued the Legislature. The lawmakers hired attorneys to represent their side, spending taxpayer dollars to argue that the voters were clueless.

Three years and quite a few legal motions later, Judge Charles Dodson — who said he had read over the wording of the amendment more than 100 times — declared that the environmental groups were right.

But Judge Dodson took his ruling one step too far. He’d said that the Amendment 1 money could only be spent on buying land. In 2019, a three-judge appeals panel pointed out that the ballot language allows refinancing the bonds for buying land, too.

Based on that technicality, they sent the case back to the circuit court for reconsideration. Dodson had retired, so Smith got it, and made that loopy leap of legal logic to throw the case out because the money had been spent. The Legislature had, in effect, run out the clock.

That’s how a case that had been a W turned into an L, both for the environment and for the voters. The legislators got caught, but then they got away with it, proving once again what criminal masterminds they are. And if they got away with it once, you know they’re going to try it again and again.

So, here’s my suggestion. We, the voters, need to pass one more constitutional amendment to suit these master criminals — literally. We should require that every legislator, during regular and special sessions, dress up as the Hamburglar. Don’t worry, there are Hamburglar costumes tailored for women, too. There will be no gender divide in the dress-like-a-clever-crook command!

They may not comply with this amendment, either — probably because they’re too humble to want to advertise their criminal genius. But at least they’ll know what we really think of them.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.

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