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Hillsborough to consider tax question while fate of $562 million lingers

A public hearing is scheduled for Wednesday on a 1 percent sales tax referendum for transportation.
Mailers promoted the November 2018 voter referendum for a 1 percent sales tax for Hillsborough County transportation projects. Voters approved, but the Florida Supreme Court voided the tax in 2021. Wednesday, Hillsborough commissioners will consider an ordinance to schedule another sales tax referendum for November. TIMES (2018)
Mailers promoted the November 2018 voter referendum for a 1 percent sales tax for Hillsborough County transportation projects. Voters approved, but the Florida Supreme Court voided the tax in 2021. Wednesday, Hillsborough commissioners will consider an ordinance to schedule another sales tax referendum for November. TIMES (2018)
Published Apr. 19|Updated Apr. 19

TAMPA — Two weeks ago, Hillsborough Commissioner Stacy White jumped ship on supporting a plan to resolve the status of $562 million escrowed from a voided transportation sales tax.

This week, White said he’s not only back on board, but that he believes he and the citizens group, All for Transportation, “are all rowing in the same direction.”

It doesn’t mean that White plans to vote to put another transportation sales tax referendum on the November ballot after a public hearing Wednesday evening before the Hillsborough County Commission.

“I will not be supporting the new referendum on policy grounds,” White told the Tampa Bay Times in an interview Monday. “But that still doesn’t mean we can’t work together to put that previous chapter behind us.”

Related: Hillsborough sets sales tax hearing

That previous chapter is the fate of the escrowed money collected from Jan. 1, 2019, until the Florida Supreme Court ― on a legal challenge from White — ruled the tax unconstitutional in February 2021.

Critics of a new proposed referendum, including White’s fellow Republican Commissioner Ken Hagan, cite the uncertainty over refunding that unspent money as one of the reasons for their opposition.

Voters approved the initial referendum by a 57-43 margin in November 2018. White later challenged the tax as unconstitutional because the spending parameters were set by the referendum and not by elected officials.

While the refund matter remained unsettled in circuit court, White, in a Feb. 17 letter to state legislators, endorsed allowing lawmakers to decide how to spend the proceeds. He suggested part of the money be earmarked for widening Lithia Pinecrest Road in his eastern Hillsborough district.

Related: Judge rejects Hillsborough sales tax refund plan

On April 6, however, as the commission debated an ordinance setting the stage for Wednesday’s public hearing, White renounced his support for the deal. He criticized All for Transportation, which advocated for the original referendum and backed the legislative remedy.

That stance softened after a Monday lunch meeting attended by White, All for Transportation co-founders Tyler Hudson and Christina Barker, former Sen. Tom Lee and lobbyist Ron Pierce.

White said he now is hopeful that the state legislative budget commission will endorse a refund, reasonable attorney fees, and earmark the remainder — potentially hundreds of millions of dollars — for the county and cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City to use for transportation.

“I think we’re all rowing the boat in the same direction at this point. That’s a good thing. That gives us a real good chance at success,” White said.

“I want what’s best for this community I think they (All for Transportation) are good people and want what’s best for this community and I think we can agree to disagree on what that looks like and what policy positions might look like,” he said.

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Barker sounded much the same tone.

“Everyone around that table has the best intentions for where those funds should go. We all feel like the community should benefit from them,” she said, while acknowledging policy disagreements. “We all want to see this resolved and it’s gone on for too long.”

Related: Hillsborough sticks with transit emphasis in sales tax plan

The largest policy disagreement surrounds mass transit. White, for instance, opposes another referendum, in part, because 45 percent of the proceeds would go to the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority. His proposed remedy sweeps all dollars intended for the agency known more commonly by the acronym HART.

The public hearing is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday in the commission chambers at the Frederick B. Karl County Center in Tampa. If the commission approves the ordinance, voters will have their say in November on a 1 percent sales tax for transportation that would begin Jan. 1, 2023.

It is projected to raise $342 million in its first full year of collection with 45 percent earmarked for the transit agency, 54.5 percent for the county and three cities to share based on population and a half-percent for the Hillsborough Transportation Planning Organization.

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