The saga continues for one Florida county’s pursuit of additional transportation tax funding.
On Oct. 10, a circuit court judge nullified the inclusion of a transportation referendum on next month’s ballot in Hillsborough County.
Despite the court ruling, the question to raise the local sales tax by a penny remains on the ballot in the county that includes the city of Tampa.
Transportation tax question remains
The referendum asks voters whether to raise the 7.5% local sales tax to 8.5% for transportation purposes.
Karen Jaroch, a Tampa resident who is a coordinator for a conservative advocacy group, filed a lawsuit to block the vote.
The legal challenge stated the referendum does not meet Florida’s requirement for a simple and narrow question.
“They incorrectly inform voters that their vote on the referendum, rather than decisions by the Board of County Commissioners, will establish the uses to which surtax proceeds will be put and that those uses will be set in stone for the 30-year life of the proposed surtax,” the suit stated.
The judge sided with Jaroch’s motion. The county, however, has appealed the verdict.
While the legal process continues, voters will be able to vote on the issue because ballots had already been printed and, in many cases, mailed to early voters.
“There is currently no legal prohibition to voting on Hillsborough County’s transportation surtax referendum, and voters may continue to cast their ballots,” the county website reads.
The 30-year tax is estimated to raise $342 million in the first year.
Local match for federal funds
Supporters say the money is needed to avoid losing out on federal funding. They point out that a local match is necessary to secure federal funds estimated at $229 million.
About half – 45% – of the sales tax revenue would be dedicated to the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority. Allotted revenue would be used for purposes that include enhancing bus services and expanding transit options.
The county and the cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace, and Plant City would divvy 54.5% of the revenue. Shares would be based on population.
Revenue would be used for projects that improve, repair, and maintain existing roads and bridges, including fixing potholes and congestion reduction.
Another one-half percent would go to the Hillsborough Transportation Planning Organization.
First legal challenge
The legal challenge is not the first time a transportation tax question in the county has been derailed by the courts.
In November 2018, Hillsborough County voters approved a question to raise the local sales tax by 1%. About 55% of new revenue was set to be applied for road work. The remaining funds were designated to pay for new and enhanced transit options.
Shortly after the referendum passed, multiple legal challenges were waged. Critics, including Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White, argued the tax was unconstitutional and took power from the County Commission.
The issue ultimately made its way to the Florida Supreme Court, where plaintiffs argued the charter amendment was “deceptive” to voters. Additionally, they said the spending parameters were set by the referendum and not by elected officials.
In early 2021, justices ruled the tax unconstitutional.
The nearly $500 million collected via the tax remains in escrow until state leaders decide how it can be used. LL
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