Lawmakers balk at legal fees in 'water wars'
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida's costly, complicated lawsuit against Georgia over regional water use reached another milestone Tuesday without any sign of resolution, as state lawmakers balked at escalating legal fees in the case that could reach $41 million this year.
Ralph Lancaster, the Maine lawyer who was appointed a special master in the case by the U.S. Supreme Court, had given the two states until Tuesday to enter mediation in an attempt to reach a settlement. Lancaster has urged the states to reach a settlement, warning that neither may like his decision if he has to make it.
Whitney Ray, a spokesman for Attorney General Pam Bondi, said the two states did participate in mediation earlier this month and Florida is now preparing a confidential memorandum, which Lancaster had requested, outlining the settlement attempts. The memos from Florida and Georgia are due by Thursday.
Florida filed a lawsuit in 2013, alleging Georgia diverts too much water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system and that the diversions have damaged Apalachicola Bay and Franklin County's seafood industry. Georgia contends any limits on its water use will undermine its economy and agriculture industry.
The lawsuit is the latest development in a decades-old "water war" between the two states, which has led to $72 million in legal costs for Florida from 2001 to the current budget year, according to a review by the state House Appropriations Committee.
The total includes $61 million for hiring private law firms, $11 million for expert witnesses and consultants and $32,000 for technology and travel expenses, the review showed.
The cost escalated after Florida filed the latest lawsuit in 2013. The price tag includes $25.5 million in legal fees in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 budget years.
But the legal fees became an issue this month when the Department of Environmental Protection revealed it was running out of money to pay the lawyers.
The environmental agency said it would be about $17 million short of a projected legal bill of $41 million for this budget year, which runs through June.
The agency filed a request with the Legislative Budget Commission, a joint panel of House and Senate members, asking for a $13 million transfer to cover the bulk of the shortfall.
But lawmakers on Tuesday delayed action on the request, saying they want more details on the rising legal costs.
"It's a lot of money. It's a significant amount of money," said House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami. "I think the price tag is really what is raising some eyebrows."
He said the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee would review the legal bills, adding the Senate supports the move.
"We want to really dive down into the bills, the action items and the cost," Trujillo said.
The bulk of the legal bills in the last two years came from Latham & Watkins, a Washington, D.C., firm that has expertise in U.S. Supreme Court litigation. The firm has billed the state $36 million from July 2015 through last November, although $4.5 million in the fees were contested, the House review showed.
Foley Lardner, a Florida firm, has billed the state $2.6 million in that period, with $100,000 in fees rejected, the review showed.
Foley Lardner is also the law firm where Jon Steverson, the outgoing head of the Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the legal fees, will be working after he leaves state employment on Feb. 3.
Attorney General Pam Bondi said Latham Watkins was brought into the Florida-Georgia case because of the specialized nature of the litigation.
"It is very important. It's very complex litigation," Bondi said.
She also said the legal bills are valid, although she does not object to more scrutiny as the case proceeds.
"They are very valid questions with the mounting legal bills. I think the money is owed," Bondi said. "And I think going forward the legal bills need to be discussed with the House. I don't disagree with that premise."
Bondi did say she never thought the cost of the litigation would be so high.
"Not in my mind, no. Having said that, though, again this is very complex, specialized litigation," she said, noting the water dispute has been going on for decades between the two states.
Gov. Rick Scott emphasized the importance of the litigation.
"It's unfortunately the only way we're going to get (this) resolved, is going to the Supreme Court," Scott told reporters after the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday.
"We have to do everything we can to keep the cost of that issue as low as we can," he said. "But it's important to make sure that Florida gets the water it deserves."
News Service of Florida