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Hillsborough’s transportation tax is at risk. What about a back-up tax?

County Commissioner chair Les Miller has proposed putting a half-cent tax on the 2020 ballot in case the Florida Supreme Court strikes down the penny sales tax.
Hillsborough County Commission chair Les Miller. [Tampa Bay Times]

TAMPA — Just one week after Hillsborough government attorneys traveled to Tallahassee to defend the county’s transportation tax in front of the Florida Supreme Court, the commission chairman has submitted plans for a replacement tax to prepare for the worst-case scenario.

Commissioner Les Miller will ask the board at its March 4 meeting to sign off on a plan to put a half-cent transportation sales surtax on the Nov. 3 ballot. That would be in case the state’s highest court strikes down the one-cent sales tax that 57 percent of county voters passed in 2018.

Related: Justices question validity of Hillsborough transportation tax

If passed, the half-cent tax would be levied for 30 years. However, it would bring in far less funding for needed transit, bike, pedestrian and road projects than the anticipated $280 million generated annually by the 2018 All For Transportation surtax. Miller wants to supplement the smaller payout by enacting an additional five-cent gas tax for 30 years, which is allowed under state law.

“A one-half percent surtax with the provisions outlined in the recommended motion has a greater chance of gaining widespread voter support,” Miller wrote in the proposal.

But the citizens who drummed up support for the county’s existing full penny sales tax vehemently oppose the half-cent plan.

“We do not support half-solving our transportation problem, and neither do the nearly 60 percent of voters that supported the All For Transportation plan in 2018,” All For Transportation spokesman Tyler Hudson told the Tampa Bay Times.

If the tax is thrown out by the court, the County Commission is running out of time to get a backup plan on the ballot by the May referendum deadline.

Related: Why is a Jacksonville personal injury law firm helping to challenge Hillsborough's transportation tax?

By law, commissioners must first set a public hearing on the proposed voter referendum, which Miller suggested could be April 1. Then they must wait until the next scheduled meeting to approve it. Then it takes at least 180 days for the state’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability audit and approve the referendum before it can be placed on the ballot.

If the county does nothing to replace the transportation tax this year, then its next shot at passing a replacement won’t come until 2022.

“Given the pressing unfunded transportation needs in our county, and given the uncertain timing and outcome of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the legality of the Transportation Surtax … it is critical that the (County Commission) take timely action to ensure that there is no gap in transportation sales surtax funding,” Miller’s proposal says.

The two-page outline was tacked on to the board’s agenda late Friday afternoon, and dovetails Commissioner Kimberly Overman’s agenda request to “discuss possible next steps regarding the transportation surtax following oral arguments for the transportation surtax litigation.”

Overman said she has no interest in a half-cent transportation tax and questioned whether Miller could find enough commission votes to pass it.

Related: Judge: Hillsborough's transportation tax is legal, but spending allocations and oversight committee are not

The legality of the county’s penny sales tax was challenged in lawsuits filed by Hillsborough resident Bob Emerson and County Commissioner Stacy White soon after it passed. They claim that the tax is unconstitutional and usurps power granted only to the commission.

Confidence in the tax’s future took a nosedive after the justices’ comments during Feb. 5 oral arguments. The court also has briefs from both the Florida Senate and House opposing the tax and agreeing with its opponents.

The tax’s fate rests on how the justices settle the arguments that attorneys have been engaged in for 14 months: whether restrictions on how to spend tax revenue can be removed while leaving the tax in place; and whether the measure presented to voters violated state law requiring the county commission to determine how tax revenue is spent.

Times editorial writer John Hill contributed to this report.

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