TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners officially waved the white flag Wednesday on a disputed tax referendum for transportation.
The commission instructed its legal team to drop its appeal in the court case brought by Karen Jaroch of Northdale, who contended the ballot language on the Nov. 8 sales tax for transportation was misleading.
Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Anne-Leigh Gaylord Moe agreed with Jaroch in an Oct. 10 ruling that temporarily halted voting on the measure. The county’s appeal to the 2nd District Court of Appeal froze Moe’s order and allowed voting to resume.
Voters rejected the 1% sales tax proposal by a 51.25%-to-48.75% margin on Nov. 8, so Wednesday’s vote won’t affect future transportation projects.
“I commend the board for following the will of the people and finally putting this new tax to rest, and hopefully proceeding forward with finally prioritizing the improvement of infrastructure and roads without the need for future taxes,” Commissioner Joshua Wostal said Wednesday.
While the commission’s unanimous vote ends the legal proceedings over the 2022 referendum, what to do with proceeds from a 2018 transportation tax referendum — $562 million sitting in escrow — remains unsettled.
In interviews this week, several officials said they expect state lawmakers to decide the fate of the money in the 2023 legislative session that begins in March. The money, collected while the 1% sales tax was in effect for 26 months, is now in the hands of the state Department of Revenue.
Voters approved the citizens-initiated 1% tax for transportation in 2018. However, then-Commissioner Stacy White challenged the legality of the referendum because the authority to set spending allocations did not rest with elected commissioners.
The Florida Supreme Court agreed in a February 2021 ruling that voided the tax. Later Hillsborough Circuit Judge Rex Barbas rejected the county’s refund idea and said the Legislature “is likely in the best position to address the issue.”
Exactly how legislators might do that is not yet known.
“It’s still in limbo,” said Christina Barker, co-founder of the All for Transportation group that advocated for the tax referendum.
“I think there’s a sentiment out there if it comes back to Hillsborough, as opposed to a refund process, that it should be appropriated for roads and sidewalks,” said White, who left office last month because of term limits.
White previously advocated for spending some of the money on widening Lithia Pinecrest Road.
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Expecting the Legislature to just hand over the money to Hillsborough County with no strings attached “is a nonstarter,” predicted former Sen. Tom Lee of Brandon, who tried to broker an earlier compromise between White and All for Transportation on how the money could be appropriated.
White’s successor, Commissioner Michael Owen, acknowledged the Legislature’s likely heavy involvement, but offered his own idea.
“I sure could pave a lot of roads with that money,” he said.