TAMPA — State Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, made no secret of his opposition to Hillsborough County’s new penny on the dollar transportation sales tax.
His photo and quotes were used on campaign mailers. He sent text message blasts slamming the tax, which was put on the ballot by a citizens group that collected more than 50,000 verified signatures.
Now Lee is proposing the state adopt stricter rules that could make it tougher for local governments and citizens groups to ask voters to raise a local sales tax.
A bill filed by Lee on Thursday would require county governments, school boards and petition groups to qualify for the ballot at least 180 days before an election to leave enough time for a state audit. Tax raises proposed by petition — such as Hillsborough's transit tax — would also have to be vetted by an independent attorney to ensure they comply with state law.
Lee said the bill is not intended to make it tougher to ask voters to approve sales tax hikes. He said the situation in Hillsborough last year when the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, or OPPAGA, was forced to conduct audits for both transit and schools sales taxes on very short notice highlighted serious flaws that need to be fixed.
The law, which sets out the process for eight discretionary sales taxes that counties can levy, required the state agency to complete its audit at least 60 days before the election. But it did not specify how far in advance that audit could be requested.
When the Hillsborough County School Board decided on Aug. 24 that it would seek voter approval of a half cent sales tax in the Nov. 6 general election, that left the state agency with only eight working days to complete an audit of the nation’s eighth largest school district.
"This is really just a clean up of a statute that broke down during the 2018 election," Lee said.
The 180-day timeline was requested by OPPAGA. If approved by lawmakers, the agency would have 30 days to contract with a certified public accountant, 90 days to conduct the audit, and 60 days for the audit to be posted online for voters wanting additional information, Lee said.
The provision for an attorney to vet initiatives for compliance with state law comes after Commissioner Stacy White filed a lawsuit in December seeking to invalidate the 30-year transportation tax. His lawsuit claims that a new citizens committee that will oversee how the tax is spent violates state law because it usurps the authority of elected officials.
Lee said people must know in advance that measures on which they are voting will pass legal muster.
"Nobody drags a lawyer into the voting booth," Lee said. "We wouldn't be in this place if all this homework had been done in the front end and not the back end."
Leaders of All for Transportation, the citizen's group that put the measure on the ballot, have previously pointed out that White had ample time to challenge the legality of the amendment. As a county commissioner he could have asked the county attorney to issue an opinion or filed his lawsuit before the measure went before voters.
Lee's bill will not affect the two sales tax hikes that Hillsborough voters overwhelmingly approved in November. But Tyler Hudson, chairman of All for Transportation, said Lee's proposal could dampen voter participation.
“We know that when Florida voters speak clearly, Tallahassee doesn’t always listen,” Hudson said. "Politicians should not discourage participation from the sources of their own power: the people. Senator Lee’s proposed changes only work to deter future community-led initiatives in other counties.’’