TAMPA — Questions are circling about what Hillsborough's county commissioners will choose to do with the revenue from a transportation sales tax now that a circuit judge has ruled it is legal.
Judge Rex Barbas ruled the 30-year, one-cent sales tax, which is expected to raise $280 million in its first year, is valid. But his ruling Monday struck down portions of the charter amendment that voters approved in November as unconstitutional, including the percentages that dictate the types of projects the money can be spent on and specifics on the role of an independent oversight committee.
The decisions of how much of the money each agency gets and what projects the revenue pays for is up to the county commission, not voters, Barbas said.
Commissioners are scheduled to hear an update on the ruling during this morning's hearing.
The Tampa Bay Times contacted all seven county commissioners Tuesday to get their thoughts on the ruling and what it means for the future of transportation in Hillsborough County. Commissioner Stacy White, who filed the lawsuit challenging the tax, declined an interview request and did not respond to questions sent via email. Excerpts of interviews with the remaining six commissioners are included below.
What does this ruling mean to you for the future of transportation in Hillsborough County?
Commissioner Ken Hagan: "I think it allows the county to move forward with the many significant transportation improvements that are badly needed."
Commissioner Pat Kemp: "We have the judge saying the tax is lawful. What I want to do is preserve what the people voted for. ... It was an overwhelming mandate. I'm looking at how we can implement the people's will."
Commissioner Kimberly Overman: "He said the way the language was written, (the percentages) weren't constitutional, but it doesn't, in my opinion, relieve me from the duty to pay attention to what the citizens asked and voted for."
The judge found the percentages unconstitutional. Do you think this referendum would've passed without that formula for how the money would be spent?
Commissioner Les Miller: "I can't answer that question. If I had an answer to that, we would've been well on our way years ago for doing what we need to in this county for public transit and transportation."
Commissioner Sandy Murman: "Absolutely I do. I've never been a proponent of the buckets, as I call them, because I thought it took our power away as elected officials." Hagan also thought it would have passed, saying the percentages were not as relevant as the fact that the referendum addressed every community throughout Hillsborough.
Commissioner Mariella Smith: "Do I think the citizens would have just voted to hand us a penny sales tax with no strings attached? No, no I do not. I think that all of the terms of the referendum gave citizens comfort to know that there was a big piece going to go for transit...I think the citizens wanted assurance that if they gave us this money, we would not blow it the way we've been blowing money on a never ending cycle of sprawl and road widening." Kemp and Overman agreed voters wanted reassurances for how the money would be spent, particularly with transit.
Do you support reinstating the percentages?
Miller, Hagan and Murman said they want more guidance from the county's legal staff about whether that would violate the judge's order.
Miller: "At this point, I'm concerned if we reinstate the percentages, we'll violate the constitutionality the judge rendered. He rendered the percentages to be unconstitutional....I don't think we need to be out here (Wednesday) as a county commission deciding whether to do the percentages. If we’re going to do those, we have to find a way to do it legally within the order of the judge."
Overman: "Absolutely. It made sense, and that's what the voters voted on. Our job is listen to what the voters asked us to do and represent them." Smith and Kemp both said they want to implement the will of the voters.
Should the county make a dedicated investment in the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority?
All six commissioners agreed something has to be allocated to the county's transit agency.
Hagan: "Yes, there is no question there should be a dedicated allocation toward HART. ... Now, what percentage that should be and what percentage HART could realistically handle, I think that needs to be determined. I do not believe there was any magical formula behind All For Transportation's (the advocacy group that crafted the charter amendment) decision for HART to receive 45 percent."
Kemp: "We have to restore that 45 percent and make sure it's dedicated. HART, more than any other jurisdiction, relies on operations for its main services. ... It can't be something you can decide one year we're going to give $10 million for operations and have 40 buses and then the next year you have 80 buses and then the year after that we're going to cut it back. That's not possible."
Overman: "Absolutely. It's necessary. Without the (local money) match, the financing mechanisms for funding transit don't work."
How could the future of this tax now be altered by future commissions?
Murman: "Future commissions can change it. ... They'd have to have 5 votes out of 7 to do it. Absolutely I think they can. But I'd need a legal opinion to back that."
Kemp: "We could preserve it as is in the interlocal agreement. ... If you had everyone signing and agreeing to it, it would be extraordinarily difficult to alter. ... It would take the jurisdictions withdrawing from the agreement in order for that to happen."
Smith: "I want to do everything we can to make sure HART is able to make long range plans for large purchases of buses and building infrastructure that we need. ... I think there are ways that we can make agreements and ordinances that will give those assurances to HART as well as to the cities. How is the city of Tampa supposed to plan their future? We need to give them assurances that they can count on the revenue stream that the voters gave them."
Do you believe this money can be spent on other non-transportation projects, such as a stadium?
All six commissioners agreed that was not the intent of the tax and not how it should be used.
Miller: "I would hope not. The citizens voted on this for transportation needs, not to build a stadium or build roads to our stadiums. I know that's not what they voted for. But that interpretation has to be up to an attorney."
Hagan: "No. I think it was ridiculous for that to be in the referendum to begin with. Clearly the funds are dedicated solely toward transportation improvements. To suggest otherwise is ridiculous."
Murman: "No, it can't be spent on a stadium, but it could be spent on road improvements leading to the stadium."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.