Hillsborough County’s effort to let voters have their say on a sales tax to fund transportation is back on, at least for now, after an appellate court judge Friday issued a stay in the case.
The decision by a judge in Florida’s 2nd District Court of Appeal halts the effects of a ruling earlier this month by Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Anne-Leigh Gaylord Moe. Moe sided with a local activist who argued that the ballot question concerning the tax is misleading.
The Hillsborough County Commission voted to appeal the decision a few days after Moe’s Oct. 10 ruling, resulting in a stay that left the referendum valid until another hearing. In that hearing on Thursday, though, Moe affirmed her decision and lifted the stay, effectively invalidating the referendum before the appellate court could hear the case.
By Friday morning, the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Office had posted notices online, in voting booths and in outgoing vote-by-mail ballots, telling voters their votes on the referendum wouldn’t count.
Then, Friday afternoon, came the order from the appellate court, which halts Moe’s last ruling — ending of the stay — meaning the stay and the referendum are back on. The notices about votes not counting were taken down when the elections office received word of the latest stay before 3 p.m. Friday, said the office’s spokesperson, Gerri Kramer.
The question remained on the ballot because ballots had already been finalized and voting tabulators programmed, Kramer said. Had Moe’s ruling held, the office would not have reported the result of the vote.
The fate of the referendum remains in flux, though. The appellate court still has to rule in the case — its order Friday just freezes things while the case plays out.
Rob Brazel, the chief assistant county attorney, explained it like this earlier this month: “As long as the stay is in place, it’s a green light for the election. If it’s lifted, it’s a red light.”
Karen Jaroch, the activist who brought the initial lawsuit against Hillsborough County, has until Tuesday evening to respond to the county’s motion to reinstate the stay.
The referendum proposes a 1% sales tax that the county says would generate $342 million in its first full year. It would fund projects including mass transit and road, intersection and sidewalk construction — some of which are part of a $13 billion backlog of needed work, advocates for the tax have argued. Opponents have said the county should rework its current budget to cover those costs, rather than add the tax.
Voters in 2018 approved a similar sales tax by a 57% to 43% margin. The Florida Supreme Court voided the tax last year after a legal challenge by County Commissioner Stacy White.