Hillsborough voters knew exactly what they were doing by approving a countywide sales tax for transportation improvements, and the lawsuit filed this week by County Commissioner Stacy White is an attempt to use the courts to thwart the overwhelming will of the people, including those in his own district. The referendum’s purpose was perfectly clear, and elected officials should be carrying out voters’ intent instead of trying to stymie it.
White’s lawsuit, filed in Hillsborough Circuit Court, is a wide-ranging broadside that accuses the tax of violating state law, subverting local authority and misleading the public. It says the measure “predetermines” how the taxes must be distributed, accuses an independent oversight board of being “effectively given veto powers” over commission decisions and claims the ballot summary worked to “confuse rather than inform the voter.” White is over-reaching in a legal gambit that mixes core governance questions with policy objections over funding for mass transit.
The one-cent sales surtax commits specific sums for various modes of transportation, with 54 percent for road and bridge improvements and 45 percent for mass transit (the remaining one percent goes for overhead). It also creates a 13-member oversight committee, appointed by local elected officials, to ensure that Hillsborough and its three cities spend the money as outlined in the ballot language.
In his complaint, White asserts that the spending formula contained in the referendum violates the commission’s authority to spend the money however it deems fit. It faults the oversight board as a panel of “unelected private citizens” with overly broad power, and downplays the voters’ approval of the referendum, saying it hinged on “defective ballot language.” White asserts that the court should declare the measure “unlawful, invalid, and unenforceable.”
White claims he merely wants clarity from the courts before the tax takes effect in January. But the fusion of fact and fiction in his complaint, and his attempt to use the courts to litigate policy choices on transportation, make this far more than a housekeeping matter. The oversight board does have to sign off on spending plans, and it has the ability (by a two-thirds vote) to hold money in abeyance from local agencies that violate the terms of the referendum. But the intent here is to ensure that local governments spend the money according to the broad guidelines the voters set.
The board will not establish transportation projects or priorities; those will come from the local governments themselves. The ballot language makes clear — contrary to White’s suggestion — that the board lacks the power to unilaterally “steer” money toward certain transportation projects. And White is inflaming the issue by claiming the measure “places a substantial restriction”on the county’s ability to use the money for new road lanes. Actually, it provides plenty of money for new road capacity. The suggestion this tax shortchanges roads is a talking point from some suburban opponents that’s simply false.
Voters had access to the ballot summary and the full ballot language long before the November election, and the transportation tax passed because it offered a balance of road and mass transit projects and because it included an oversight board to prevent the type of monetary shell games that Florida lawmakers played with the lottery. It was approved by virtually the same vote majority (57.3 percent) that also sent White to another term (57.6 percent). The measure also passed by 52-48 in White’s east county district, the most conservative in Hillsborough. Rather than re-fight a battle he lost, White should work in good faith to carry out the voters’ will. Hillsborough County commissioners (with White dissenting) sent the right signal Wednesday by moving ahead to lay the foundation to implement the tax. The voters made an informed choice, and they spoke loudly and clearly for progress.