TAMPA — The Florida House of Representatives is joining the fight over the future of Hillsborough’s transportation tax.
A lawyer for the chamber has filed a brief in support of a lawsuit that seeks to overturn the tax and is set to go before the Florida Supreme Court. House General Counsel Adam Tanenbaum asked the court to reverse a lower court ruling and eliminate the tax, along with the charter amendment that authorized it.
Such briefs can be filed with the authority of the house speaker or senate president and do not require a vote from the membership.
Hillsborough voters approved the charter amendment in November, with 57 percent saying yes to a 1 percent sales tax increase to pay for transit, bike, pedestrian and road projects. The tax was estimated to raise more than $280 million annually, but it faced legal challenges almost immediately.
In separate lawsuits, Hillsborough resident Bob Emerson and Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White argued that the tax is unconstitutional and usurps power from the County Commission.
A circuit court judge agreed in part, issuing a ruling this summer striking certain spending restrictions on the tax but choosing to uphold it. Both Emerson and White appealed, asking the state’s highest court to weigh in.
The brief, filed late Tuesday on behalf of the House, argues the language in the multi-page charter amendment was “deceptive” and “(hid) from the voter the simple, ‘clean’ levy question that the Legislature required.”
The brief also argues against the circuit judge’s decision to strike part of the amendment language while still upholding the tax.
White told the Times Wednesday he was aware of the brief but had not had a chance to read it.
State Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, said it’s not unusual for the House or Senate to file a brief in a case that’s relevant to the Legislature.
The filing is up to discretion of House Speaker José Oliva, R-Miami Lakes.
Both Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, and Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, serve on the house judiciary committee but said they were not aware of the brief before it was filed.
“I’m sure the brief says, ‘Filed on behalf of the Florida House,’ but it’s really the speaker that directs the positions taken by the House,” Diamond said. “It’s not like I got an email asking me to vote yes or no.”
Grant said he assumed the brief had the support of the speaker and other members.
“It’s certainly fair to say on this issue that there’s a lot of us who have concerns over what was put on the ballot and how it was put on the ballot,” Grant said. His office has received calls from people who wanted to know when the sales tax would be used to pay for road widening projects and repairs, he said.
Many constituents in unincorporated parts of the county voted for the tax thinking it would fix certain roads, “and they’re sorely mistaken,” Grant said. "That’s what happens when you have these convoluted, ambiguous constitutional amendments.”
Leaders of All for Transportation, the advocacy group that helped pass the charter amendment, said any concerns about delays in the tax paying for transportation projects should be raised with White, who filed the initial lawsuit challenging the tax.
Grant said he agrees with the points made in the brief that challenge the circuit court judge’s decision to sever parts of the amendment but uphold the tax.
“What the circuit court is effectively saying is, ‘We think we knew what the voters wanted,’” Grant said. “In my mind, a ballot referendum is either sufficient or its not. ... It either has flaws or it doesn’t.”
Diamond said his understanding is that the Legislature gives local governments the ability to levy a transportation tax through a referendum and that’s what residents of Hillsborough County decided to do.
“I guess the question is, ‘What’s the House’s interest in this other than the fact that perhaps the Speaker just disagrees with the policy?’” Diamond said. “But the voters in Hillsborough County decided (they’re) fed up with the state of transportation in the community... Eventually voters are going to push back and come up with their own solutions.”
Leaders of All for Transportation, the advocacy group that helped pass the transportation tax, said it was disappointing to see the Florida House challenge a tax that their constituents approved.
“Hillsborough County voters exercised a right that the Florida Legislature gave them,” All for Transportation organizer Christina Barker said, referring to the ability for citizens to put a sales tax on the ballot. “The fact that that is being walked back now is incredibly disappointing.”
Katherine Betta, a spokeswoman for Florida Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said via email that Galvano has read the brief and doesn’t intend for the Senate to take any similar measure at this time.
Galvano’s determination, Betta said, is, “that at this time, the relevant arguments have been made before the court.”