A proposed amendment to the state constitution that would give Floridians the right to “a clean and healthy environment” sends the right message in the wrong way.
Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch, a member of Florida’s Constitution Revision Commission (CRC), is sponsoring Proposal 23 that, if placed on the ballot in November 2018 and passed by 60 percent of voters, would amend Article II in part to include the following: “Every person has a right to a clean and healthful environment, including clean air and water; control of pollution; and the conservation and restoration of the natural, scenic, historic, and aesthetic values of the environment as provided by law.”
Few would find offense with such principles. Who desires dirty air and water?
The amendment is a response to public frustration over the way the Legislature has implemented the Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative — aka Amendment 1, passed by 75 percent of state voters in 2014. Lawmakers have not been appropriating a third of annual doc stamp revenues for the Florida Forever land acquisition program, instead spending the money on other environmental initiatives.
Although the goals expressed by Proposal 23 may be admirable, it is written in such general terms that enforcing it would be wholly subjective. When adjudicating a legal dispute over compliance, how would authorities determine what constitutes “clean” and “healthful”?
The answers are key, because Proposal 23 also would make it easier to pursue legal challenges to environmental policies. If the courthouse door is to open wider, it should not at the same time invite more uncertainty into the proceedings.
Such ambiguity would not be new to the Florida Constitution.
In 2009 several advocacy groups filed a lawsuit against the State Board of Education, arguing it failed to fund “high quality” public schools. The case finally went to trial in 2016, where a Leon County circuit court judge ruled against the plaintiffs, writing that “the weight of the evidence shows that the state has made education a top priority both in terms of implementation of research-based education policies and reforms, as well as education funding.”
That opinion currently is under appeal. The First District Court of Appeal heard oral arguments in July. When questioned by the three-judge panel, the plaintiffs attorney couldn’t answer when asked to cite the specific standard Florida wasn’t meeting, whether it was funding, school grades or some other metric of achievement. Judge James Wolf wondered if the constitutional amendment is “totally useless” without standards to enforce it.
There are better ways for Floridians to put teeth into environmental laws and serve the public interest. One example to consider: Thurlow-Lippisch, the sponsor of Proposal 23, is behind another proposal that would create an elected Cabinet position for a commissioner of Environmental Protection.
The eight-year legal dispute over Florida’s education amendment offers a preview of what could happen if Proposal 23 were approved. The state’s environmental policy needs clarity, not confusion.
This guest editorial was originally published in the Ocala Star Banner, a sister newspaper of the Daily News within Gatehouse Media.