By Bill Cotterell
MIAMI (Reuters) - Three environmentalist organizations sued the Florida legislature Monday, accusing lawmakers of defying a constitutional mandate and short-changing conservation land purchase and water protection projects.
The Republican-controlled state House and Senate concluded a special legislative session last week with passage of a $79 billion state budget that left environmentalists upset over lack of funding for what they consider key projects to protect Florida's water resources, including the Everglades.
The Republican leadership contended it complied with a constitutional amendment, approved by 75 percent of the voters last November, that requires one-third of tax revenue from real estate development, about $745 million, to go toward land acquisition and conservation purposes.
Earthjustice attorney David Guest said legislators siphoned off about $300 million of those funds for "things that had some nexus to anything that could be called conservation and land management."
He said "tens of millions of dollars" went to pay operating costs, including salaries, at state conservation agencies that would have been covered in the budget anyway.
Earthjustice filed suit in Leon County Circuit Court also on behalf of the Florida Wildlife Federation, the St. Johns Riverkeeper and the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida.
Activists in those organizations were instrumental in successfully gathering signatures to put the Water and Land Acquisition Amendment on the ballot last year and getting it approved by voters.
"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 Republican who was named a defendant in the case.
The civil suit does not seek to overturn any budget items or make the legislature pass new appropriations. It seeks a court declaration for the 2016 legislative session, stating that money in the Land Acquisition Trust Fund "may not be substituted for general revenue" in the budget.
(Editing by David Adams and Lisa Lambert)