The Phoenix Flyer

Voters’ will? Legal case over FL conservation land-buying measure has its day in court Tuesday

By: - July 15, 2019 10:44 am

Florida’s counties have been winning approval to reopen vacation rentals but there are restrictions on who can come. Credit: Julie Hauserman

Five years ago, a whopping 75 percent of Florida voters approved a state Constitutional amendment to dedicate a share of state tax dollars to conservation land buying. The enormously popular measure got more votes than any candidate (or any other issue) on the ballot.

It wasn’t a new tax – it just earmarked 33 percent of the money already collected through the documentary tax on real estate transactions “to acquire, restore, improve, and manage conservation lands” for future generations.

But 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.

Environmental groups went to court to get lawmakers to adhere to what voters directed in the Water and Land Conservation amendment to Florida’s Constitution. Last summer, Circuit Judge Charles Dodson, in a ruling from the bench, agreed with the groups that legislators had defied voters’ will.

The state appealed, and on Tuesday, the legal case will be heard in the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee. A number of groups sued the state, including the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Florida Defenders of the Environment, Sierra Club, St. Johns Riverkeeper and the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida. They are being represented by the nonprofit national legal firm Earthjustice and other independent lawyers.

For years, the state’s Florida Forever conservation program led the nation. From 1990 to 2008, the Florida Legislature earmarked $300 million a year for conservation land-buying. Then, the commitment dwindled. One year, the state allocated no dollars at all to Florida Forever. In the most recent state budget, legislators appropriated only $33 million for Florida Forever.

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Julie Hauserman
Julie Hauserman

Julie Hauserman has been writing about Florida for more than 30 years. She is a former Capitol bureau reporter for the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times, and reported for The Stuart News and the Tallahassee Democrat. She was a national commentator for National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday and The Splendid Table . She has won many awards, including two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work is featured in several Florida anthologies, including The Wild Heart of Florida , The Book of the Everglades , and Between Two Rivers . Her new book is Drawn to The Deep, a University Press of Florida biography of Florida cave diver and National Geographic explorer Wes Skiles.