Hillsborough Commissioner Stacy White, whose lawsuit derailed the 2018 voter-approved transportation sales tax, has some ideas on spending $521 million escrowed during the ongoing legal fight over refunds.
White wants some of the money spent on new road lanes in his own eastern Hillsborough district with the leftovers earmarked for the county’s ongoing road repaving program.
His proposal notably sweeps all sales tax proceeds from the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, which was promised 45 percent of the revenue under the 2018 referendum.
In a Feb. 17 letter to Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson and House Speaker Chris Sprowls, White suggested a legislative remedy in which a portion of the money would be set aside for publicly requested refunds, attorney fees and allocations to the cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City.
After that, White wrote, the money should pay to widen Lithia Pinecrest Road from Lumsden Road to Fishhawk Boulevard, with the remainder earmarked for the county’s ongoing road resurfacing program.
Widening Lithia Pinecrest Road from two to four lanes carries a price tag beyond $100 million, according to previous county estimates. At White’s urging, commissioners agreed in September to include $250,000 in the current county budget to study the project.
Simpson, R-Trilby, and Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, came up with a legislative solution, but not one as specific as White’s plan. They authorized a provision in the proposed state budget forwarding the money to a legislative budget conference for disbursement toward transportation projects. The directive hinges on whether the courts rule the escrowed money should be in control of the state Department of Revenue.
The legislative provision, made public March 9, is part of the state budget plan to be voted upon by legislators Monday.
White and the leaders of All for Transportation, the group that advocated for the 2018 referendum, welcomed the state lawmakers’ action.
“We’re still a long way from the finish line, but this is a step in the right direction,” White said.
“We are grateful to Speaker Sprowls and President Simpson for facilitating a pathway toward a resolution that addresses Hillsborough County’s transportation needs,” said Christina Barker, co-founder of All for Transportation.
All for Transportation also endorsed the framework outlined in White’s proposal, calling it a compromise that achieves the group’s original goal to increase transportation funding in Hillsborough County.
A final resolution, however, requires court action. White’s legal team has sought to have a Leon County Circuit Court judge decide how to distribute or refund the disputed $521 million as part of a class action claim over the money.
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Separately, Hillsborough County is seeking its own refund plan in a case before Hillsborough Circuit Judge Rex Barbas. The county proposed that a three-judge panel of retired judges rule on refund applications submitted by the public.
Barbas heard arguments on the case last year, but has yet to offer a ruling. At the time, Barbas said he was “not really satisfied with what I’ve seen with the (refund) mechanism.”
The legislative remedy also means a Hillsborough-specific sales tax holiday is no longer on the table. White and others initially suggested the $521 million — collected while the tax was in effect from Jan. 1, 2019, until the Florida Supreme Court voided it in February 2021 — could finance a temporary sales tax holiday in the county. That plan, however, required legislation in Tallahassee, which never materialized.
“Everybody agrees that it is time for the public to get what it bargained for — either get their money back or get their transportation improvements. It’s time to put this to bed,” said former state Sen. President Tom Lee of Brandon, who helped broker the alternative supported by White and All for Transportation.
Lee opposed the tax and has said the planned allocations didn’t match the capital improvements needed in the county. But he said a compromise, as laid out by White’s letter, “is an imperfect solution that is far better than the alternative, which is to continue fighting in court, drag this out, rack up attorney fees, have people at odds and continue the name calling.”