The balanced ruling Monday by Hillsborough Circuit Judge Rex Barbas charts a reasonable course for honoring the will of the voters who passed a countywide transportation tax in November. Barbas struck down specific allocations for transportation spending, but he upheld the one-cent sales tax as an “evident” outcome of the voters’ well-informed “desire to improve transportation needs.” The ruling should put to rest any question about the tax’s legitimacy, and it charts a path for Hillsborough County commissioners to carry out the voters’ intent.
Barbas ruled the local sales tax for transportation is legal, but he stripped away provisions in the charter amendment outlining specific spending requirements. The judge said the details controlling where and how the money is spent violated the county commission’s authority under state law to make local budgeting decisions. The charter amendment approved by 57 percent of the voters alloted specific amounts to various transportation categories, from road and bridge work to mass transit projects. It also gave an appointed oversight board the power to approve and disapprove projects and withhold funding. Barbas said the stricken portions “constitute a usurpation of powers” but also found that eliminating them did not kill the tax itself.
The split decision should appease both sides and clear the way for local governments to begin spending on transportation improvements. Commissioner Stacy White, who filed the lawsuit, should accept the ruling as a clean bill of health for the referendum, which passed in both urban areas and the suburbs, including in White’s conservative east county district. Petition supporters, with whom Barbas sided on several key points, should welcome the judge’s finding in upholding the tax that voters were informed and “that the electorate made their desires clear.”
Now it’s time to move ahead. Commissioners should seize the opportunity to honor the voters’ intent by taking the proper steps to divvy up the transportation tax as the amendment promised. Road improvements would still be the biggest winner, which should please suburban residents and was a practical concession for making historic investments in mass transit. Local officials should ensure that Hillsborough Area Regional Transit is made whole by committing at least 45 percent of the tax proceeds to the county’s mass transit provider as the amendment outlined. And though Barbas curtailed its power, the independent oversight committee still has a vital role to play over the next three decades in ensuring that billions of tax dollars are responsibly spent as the voters intended.
Barbas’ ruling lays the groundwork to finally act on the election result. This referendum passed not just because voters recognized the pressing need to address transportation. The plan was balanced and forward-looking enough to promise meaningful change. Suburban residents wanted wider intersections and safer streets. City residents wanted more robust mass transit. Employers and workers alike wanted quicker and more reliable commuter options. The county has a laundry list of worthy projects awaiting funding.
The political reality is that transportation dominated last year’s county commission elections and this year’s Tampa elections for mayor and City Council. No other issue has galvanized Hillsborough voters, and ending the legal uncertainty over the tax would be a big boost for local government.
Commissioner Kimberly Overman captured the right spirit Tuesday, announcing she would move to allocate the tax “exactly as described in the charter amendment.” That would honor the outcome of the referendum and the voters’ intent. If that commitment ever wavers, the oversight committee can shine a hot spotlight on those failures — and the voters can hold the county commissioners accountable in future elections.