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In 2018, a judge ruled that lawmakers misused conservation land funds. A new judge tossed the case

 Amendment 1 was intended to protect more land, like imperiled pine rocklands, from development across Florida.
Tim Chapman
Miami Herald archives
Amendment 1 was intended to protect more land, like imperiled pine rocklands, from development across Florida.

In his ruling Monday, Judge E. Layne Smith said conservationists dragged their feet and failed to ask for a temporary restraining order that would have prevented lawmakers from spending the money.

A Tallahassee judge threw out a long-simmering dispute Monday over whether state legislators misspent billions of dollars in real estate taxes — funds that were overwhelmingly approved by voters, nearly a decade ago, to buy conservation land.

In his ruling, Judge J. Layne Smith said conservationists had dragged their feet after having a victory overturned by an appeals court in 2018 and sent back to his court.

“The record reflects Plaintiffs did not prosecute this action with any urgency and the appropriations they are contesting have long since expired,” he wrote.

The Sierra Club, part of a coalition of conservation groups battling lawmakers, said they were “confounded” by the new order after filling hundreds of documents in the case.

“Judge Layne Smith’s decision affords the Florida Legislature the ability to use the tax money for anything from 1,000 camouflage baseball hats gifted to farmers, DirectTV service, and computer monitors to tens of millions of dollars for salaries,” the Sierra Club said in a statement.

Passed in 2014, the Land Acquisition Trust Fund would have provided up to $1.6 billion a year to buy and save disappearing wild lands. With an overwhelming 75% approval, voters agreed to spend a third of real estate taxes over a decade to purchase land.

But the next year when lawmakers instead spent more than two thirds of the money on more mundane matters, including risk management insurance, Sierra Club and the other conservation groups sued. In 2018, they won their case.

“The clear intent was to create a trust fund to purchase new conservation lands and take care of them,” Leon County Judge Charles Dodson wrote.

But, the next year, an appeals court reversed the decision and sent it back to the lower court.

In his order Monday, Smith said conservationists failed to file for a temporary injunction to stop lawmakers from spending the money or take other procedural steps. Because lawmakers had already appropriated money from the trust fund, he also said the fight is essentially moot.

The Sierra Club, in its statement, said that rather than reject Dodson’s ruling, Smith essentially used a technicality to dismiss the case.

“This new order delivers the message that the will of the voters is meaningless,” the Sierra Club said in its statement.

In his proposed budget for the 2022-2023 fiscal year, Gov. Ron DeSantis has again proposed tapping into the fund for salaries, insurance, maintaining roads and bridges and controlling pollution on farmland.

The dispute also divided environmental groups after the plaintiffs argued the tightly-worded ballot question made clear the money was intended to add more conservation land to the state and did not include spending on existing land, much of which is included in Everglades restoration projects.

DeSantis has proposed just $100 million for buying conservation lands in his budget. By comparison, he’s proposed $660 million for Everglades restoration work and $195 million for projects that improve water quality.

You can read more stories like this one by signing up for our environment text letter. Just text “enviro news” to 786-677-0767 and we’ll send you a roundup of stories like this — and more — every Wednesday.

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Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.
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