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Separate sales taxes for roads and transit? Hillsborough considers the idea.

The motion failed, but it pointed up differences among commissioners over how to improve transportation.
A public hearing is scheduled April 1 before the Hillsborough County Commission on whether to put a backup tax for transportation projects on the November ballot. A tax that voters already approved faces tough scrutiny before the Florida Supreme Court.
A public hearing is scheduled April 1 before the Hillsborough County Commission on whether to put a backup tax for transportation projects on the November ballot. A tax that voters already approved faces tough scrutiny before the Florida Supreme Court.

TAMPA — The latest installment in the intractable debate over how to pay for Hillsborough’s transportation needs: Put two half-cent measures on the November ballot, one for roads and one for transit, and let voters choose one, both or neither.

In the end, the County Commission stuck with an earlier proposal, voting 6-1 to place a single one-cent transportation tax on the ballot as a backup in the event the Florida Supreme Court rejects a one-cent tax that voters already have approved.

But the move to split the tax revealed key differences in how some commissioners approach the challenge.

“It gets rid of all that ambiguity,” said Jim Davison, a Hillsborough resident who often speaks on transportation issues and proposed the idea. “You would still have a one-cent sales tax, but you’ll have greater certainty as to what the people want and what their desires are.”

The board rejected the idea 4-3, but commissioners Stacy White, Sandy Murman and Ken Hagan voted for it.

“That, I think, would solve the dilemma over whether we have a roads funding package versus a mass transit package,” White said. “It would give voters the chance to weigh in on that issue.”

The divide is at the heart of a decade-long transportation debate among commissioners and residents.

A majority of voters in November 2018 said they were willing to increase the sales tax by a penny in order to pay for roads, transit, safety and other transportation options for the next 30 years.

Related: Florida Supreme Court justices question validity of Hillsborough transportation tax

But White challenged the legality of that tax, arguing that it usurps power from the county commission by dictating what percentage of the revenue can be spent on certain types of projects. His lawsuit advanced to the Florida Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in February. No date has been set for a ruling.

Commissioner chairman Les Miller brought a proposal before the board to place a one-cent transportation sales tax on the November ballot that would only take effect if voters approve it and if the Supreme Court strikes down the existing tax before noon on Nov. 2.

Related: Backup levy would not double Hillsborough's transportation tax, officials say

Miller’s plan is an attempt to keep the basic provisions of the 2018 tax in place. Proceeds would be divided in much the same way except the county’s transit agency would get 40 percent instead of 45 percent. A public hearing on the replacement tax is set for April 1.

Miller called Davison’s proposal for a split tax “nothing more than a ploy” to confuse voters and to keep any measure off the November ballot.

“I do not think we need to continue with the confusion,” commissioner Pat Kemp said. “This is unbelievable, the road we’ve been down."

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