Court rejects Hillsborough County transportation tax referendum

A circuit court judge said the ballot language “misleads the public.”
A circuit court judge has invalidated ballot language that, if approved, would have created a 1% sales tax to pay for road and other traffic projects in Hillsborough County.
A circuit court judge has invalidated ballot language that, if approved, would have created a 1% sales tax to pay for road and other traffic projects in Hillsborough County. [ "LUIS SANTANA | TIMES" | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Oct. 10, 2022|Updated Oct. 11, 2022

TAMPA — Hillsborough County’s second attempt at a transportation surtax hit a roadblock Monday when a circuit court judge invalidated the November ballot question.

”It misleads the public,” said Hillsborough County Circuit Court Judge Anne-Leigh Gaylord Moe.

Moe’s ruling agreed with the arguments from attorney Samuel Salario. He represents Karen Jaroch, a Northdale resident and conservative activist who contended the County Commission-approved ballot language was ambiguous and would confuse voters.

The ballot cited specific locations in the county and specific transportation projects covered by the proposed 1% sales tax. Including those locations in the ballot could make voters believe they were approving specific fixes in specific regions, Salario argued.

The county chose “poll-tested rhetoric” instead of a clear ballot question, he said.

“That’s on county officials. That’s not on anybody else,” Salario argued.

He declined comment after the ruling.

“The only losers today are the residents of Hillsborough County who again have had their opportunity to fix our broken transportation system delayed,” said Tyler Hudson, co-chairperson of the citizen’s group All for Transportation

Jaroch was elated, however, and accepted hugs from supporters after Moe’s ruling that followed a two-hour hearing.

“I’m thrilled,” Jaroch said. “I think we proved that this was misleading and ambiguous ballot language that was politically motivated.”

The county left open the possibility it would appeal. The judge issued her decision orally from the bench and said a written order would follow in the coming days.

“That’s the first issue that’s going to be discussed,” attorney Mark Herron, representing Hillsborough County, said about an appeal.

“I have every intention of bringing it to the agenda so that the board has a voice in our course of action, commission chairperson Kimberly Overman told the Tampa Bay Times.

Moe’s decision is the second time the courts have blocked a transportation sales tax in Hillsborough. Voters approved a similar referendum in 2018 by a 57% to 43% margin, but it failed to survive a legal challenge from County Commissioner Stacy White. He filed suit, saying the authority to allocate the tax proceeds rested with elected commissioners, not a pre-determined formula contained in the citizen-initiated referendum.

The Florida Supreme Court agreed in a February 2021 ruling that voided the tax and left nearly $570 million, accumulated in the 26 months the tax was collected, in limbo.

Moe referenced that case in questions to attorneys Monday, asking what happened to the money.

“It kind of created a mess,” Moe said about the court fight and eventual decision coming after the tax had been enacted.

The ballot question struck down Monday stated:

“Should transportation improvements be funded throughout Hillsborough County, including Tampa, Plant City, Temple Terrace, Brandon, Riverview, Carrollwood, and Town ‘n’ Country, including projects that:

• Build and widen roads.

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• Fix roads and bridges.

• Expand public transit options.

• Fix potholes.

• Enhance bus services.

• Improve intersections.

• Make walking and biking safer.

By levying a 1% sales surtax for 30 years and funds deposited in an audited trust fund with citizen oversight.”

The language was similar to what voters approved four years ago. Circuit Judge Rex Barbas had authorized the language during the earlier court fight.

“Judge Barbas thought what we previously approved was accurate enough that voters would know what it looked like,” Overman noted. “There’s nothing in here that’s inaccurate. It’s just describing communities throughout Hillsborough County.

The Hillsborough supervisor of elections already has mailed 323,000 ballots to voters. Early voting begins Oct. 24. An attorney for the elections supervisor attended the hearing, but declined comment afterward. A spokesperson for Supervisor Craig Latimer did not immediately respond to a voicemail message seeking comment.

Latimer said in a court filing he would abide by the judicial ruling.