Hillsborough transportation tax vote challenged in court

A lawsuit seeks to block the Nov. 8 voter referendum, saying the ballot question violates state law.
Mailers promoting a 1% sales tax for transportation in Hillsborough County in 2018. Voters approved, but the tax was voided by the Florida Supreme Court. The ballot language for a 2022 referendum is now being challenged in court. TIMES (2018).
Mailers promoting a 1% sales tax for transportation in Hillsborough County in 2018. Voters approved, but the tax was voided by the Florida Supreme Court. The ballot language for a 2022 referendum is now being challenged in court. TIMES (2018).
Published Aug. 26, 2022|Updated Aug. 26, 2022

A new lawsuit seeks to derail the Hillsborough County transportation sales tax referendum in November.

Karen Jaroch of Northdale, who gained national attention a decade ago as a Tea Party advocate, is the plaintiff in a suit filed this week against Hillsborough County and Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer.

The suit seeks to prevent voters from considering the referendum as presented on Nov. 8, contending the ballot fails the state requirement for a simple and narrow question on the proposed 30-year, 1% sales tax for transportation.

“They incorrectly inform voters that their vote on the referendum, rather than decisions by the Board of County Commissioners, will establish the uses to which surtax proceeds will be put and that those uses will be set in stone for the 30-year life of the proposed surtax,” the suit stated.

“The ballot title and ballot summary also improperly induce voters to cast ballots in favor of the surtax by promising residents of specific, select areas of the county that they will receive specific, favored transportation improvements —misleadingly, it turns out, because those are promises the county cannot expect to keep.”

Hillsborough County Attorney Christine Beck said the county “will vigorously defend this important initiative to allow the citizens of Hillsborough County to have a voice in the transportation needs of our county.”

This isn’t the first time ballot language on the county transportation tax referendum has been challenged in court. Circuit Judge Rex Barbas ruled twice previously that nearly identical ballot language in a 2018 referendum was legally sound.

Voters approved that tax referendum by 57% to 43% in November 2018. Jaroch’s suit, however, cites the Florida Supreme Court ruling that voided the sales tax in February 2021 because the final spending decisions did not rest with elected county commissioners. The $562 million accumulated over the 27 months the tax was collected remains in escrow awaiting disbursement from the state’s Joint Legislative Budget Commission.

Jaroch, a Gulf states regional coordinator for the Conservative group, Heritage Action for America, also is a former board member for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority. She was a leading opponent of the voter-rejected Hillsborough County rail referendum in 2010. She is represented by attorney Samuel Salario of Brannock Humphries & Berman.

Jaroch did not immediately respond to a telephone message and email seeking comment.

Gerri Kramer, a spokesperson for Latimer, said the Supervisor of Elections Office “would follow the ruling of the court.”

Advocates for the transportation tax criticized the suit.

“This is a frivolous ploy to deny voters the chance to fix Hillsborough County’s transportation crisis. A small group of obstructionists have already delayed by four years much needed road, safety and transit projects which has had catastrophic consequences for the community,” said Tyler Hudson, co-chairperson of the All for Transportation group championing the tax referendum. “Lawsuits don’t fill potholes, and voters deserve the opportunity to decide their transportation future at the ballot box.”

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“We have these same set of folks that don’t want to pay for anything, don’t want to invest in transportation. It’s just sad,” said commission chairperson Kimberly Overman.

The ballot language, written by the county and approved by commissioners, states:

“Should transportation improvements be funded throughout Hillsborough County, including Tampa, Plant City, Temple Terrace, Brandon, Riverview, Carrollwood, and Town ‘n’ Country, including projects that:

  • Build and widen roads,
  • Fix roads and bridges,
  • Expand public transit options,
  • Fix potholes,
  • Enhance bus services,
  • Improve intersections,
  • Make walking and biking safer,

By levying a 1% sales surtax for 30 years and funds deposited in an audited trust fund with citizen oversight.”

If voters approve, 45% of the proceeds would be earmarked for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority. The county and the cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City would divide 54.5% based on their populations, and 0.5% would be set aside for the Hillsborough Transportation Planning Organization.

The tax is projected to raise $342 million in its first full year of collections.