- Associated Press - Monday, June 22, 2015

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Calling it a “slap in the face to Florida voters,” environmental groups filed a lawsuit Monday that contends state legislators “defied” a constitutional amendment approved last fall.

Legislators just last Friday approved a nearly $79 billion state budget, but they included only $55 million for major land acquisition efforts.

Voters in November approved Amendment 1. It earmarks 33 percent - or about $18 billion to $20 billion over the next 20 years - from a real estate stamp tax to help the state purchase lands for conservation and water quality. It was the largest such measure ever approved in U.S. history.

Legislators included in the new budget more than $750 million from real estate taxes on a wide array of programs including beach restoration and projects aimed at helping the state’s beleaguered freshwater springs. But they also used the money to pay for salaries at several state agencies that oversee environmental programs and oversee existing state-owned lands and forests. They included only $17.4 million for Florida Forever, the state’s main land conservation program.

“Seventy-five percent of Florida voters approved this amendment last November, and they were clear that they want the state to buy conservation land,” Florida Wildlife Federation President Manley Fuller said. “Instead, the Legislature took the money and used it for things it should not be spent on. This is a slap in the face to Florida voters, and it should not stand.”

Florida legislative leaders, however, quickly defended the way they handled conservation spending. They maintained that they used the money in ways permitted by the amendment.

“The Legislature complied with both the spirit and the letter of the Constitution, and we look forward to defending against this politically motivated lawsuit,” said House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, a Merritt Island Republican.

David Guest, an attorney for Earthjustice, the group handling the lawsuit, maintained that more than $300 million that the Legislature set aside this year does not follow the guidelines established in the amendment.

The lawsuit was filed in a Leon County court even though Gov. Rick Scott has yet to act on the budget. He is expected to approve the budget, but he also has the power to use his veto pen to eliminate individual spending items. State government will be partially shut down if a new budget is not in place by July 1.

Guest said the goal was to take the case to the state Supreme Court and let the judges “create a set of rules” and decide what’s allowed under the new amendment.

The lawsuit was filed by the Florida Wildlife Federation, St. Johns Riverkeeper and the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida.

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