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Environmental spending cases could be merged

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Environmental groups that dispute how lawmakers spent voter-approved money for land conservation have agreed to combine two lawsuits.

Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson on Monday gave the Florida Wildlife Federation, St. Johns Riverkeeper, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, the Sierra Club and Florida Wildlife Federation official Manley Fuller until Jan. 6 to file an amended complaint that is similar to a lawsuit filed by the Florida Defenders of the Environment, which questions how legislators allocated money from the state's Land Acquisition Trust Fund.

The groups proposed merging the lawsuits after the state had requested a consolidation.

Dodson reserved judgment on the proposal by the groups until the amended version is filed.

"We'd rather brief the issues once rather than twice," said attorney Andy Bardos, representing the Legislature. "We would rather have one trial, your honor, and I believe that it will be more efficient for the court as well." After the hearing, Florida Defenders of the Environment attorney Joseph Little said the groups asked to merge their lawsuits as they believed Dodson would have consolidated the lawsuits "whether we agreed or not."

The disputes stem from how the Legislature has carried out a 2014 ballot initiative, known as Amendment 1, requiring that 33 percent of the proceeds from an existing real-estate tax go for land and water maintenance and acquisition across Florida.

Environmental groups argue that the Legislature has improperly spent large amounts of the money on expenses such as salaries, purchasing motor vehicles and for general operating costs.

Bardos said while there are some differences in the two lawsuits, both object to 98 of the same spending allocations in the 2015-2016 budget.