TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners could wave the green flag Wednesday to start the race toward a November 2022 transportation sales tax referendum.
Commissioner Gwen Myers plans to ask her colleagues to task the county’s administration and legal staff with beginning the process of putting the ballot question before voters again next year.
Myers said she wants the necessary paperwork back to the commission for approval “as soon as possible,” potentially in April, and that it should duplicate the funding levels accompanying the prior referendum from the citizens group All for Transportation.
Voters approved a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase in November 2018 with 45 percent of the revenue earmarked to the county’s transit authority and the rest divided among the county and the cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City. The Metropolitan Planning Organization would use 1 percent of revenue for transportation planning and oversight.
Commissioner Stacy White, however, filed a legal challenge to the referendum’s validity and last week the Florida Supreme Court tossed out the sales tax increase, saying the spending decisions must lie with elected county commissioners, not a citizens group.
In the year between the arguments before the state Supreme Court and its decision last week, Myers successfully campaigned for the District 3 County Commission seat with a promise to resuscitate the referendum if the court nullified the tax.
“I’m thankful for the 57 percent of the voters who overwhelmingly voted for this, but now we have to come back because we have so many infrastructure projects that need to be completed and the county doesn’t have funding for,” Myers said this week.
Five weeks ago, commissioners were told of five-year, $287 million deficit in the county’s transportation capital improvement program even with proceeds from a pending $190 million bond issue added to the revenue ledger.
Commission Chair Pat Kemp said it might be premature to restart the referendum process, less than a week after the Florida Supreme Court ruling.
“I think at this time we need to take a breather,” said Kemp. ”But I don’t doubt that there will be a supermajority (in the future) on the commission to move that forward.”
But All for Transportation co-chair Christina Barker said she didn’t think Myers move was coming too early.
“I do think we have a lot of time and we should utilize that time to our benefit in terms of communicating, hearing from citizens, from neighborhoods, from people on what they want and how seriously they still take this issue. But, I don’t think it’s premature to have the conversation,” said Barker.
After last week’s ruling, White said, “the solution should most definitely involve county government making transportation a real priority in its budget and, if another referendum is sent to the people for a vote, it should be done in accordance with state law.”
An opposition group to the 2018 referendum, No Tax for Tracks, said the spending priorities wrongly emphasized rail transit over road improvements.
Barker said she anticipated the same opposition to a 2022 referendum and “that is the idea that no action, in some way, costs us less than fixing the problem. There is a cost associated with waiting to fix our problem. We pay it with our time. We pay it with our money. We also pay it with people’s lives on the unsafe streets of this county.”