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Hillsborough transportation sales tax debate heads to the courthouse

A circuit court judge will hear arguments on the legal validity of the Nov. 8 referendum
All for Transportation campaign mailers from 2018 are shown here. On Monday, a Hillsborough Circuit Court judge is scheduled to hear arguments on the legal validity of the Nov. 8 referendum for a 1% sales tax for transportation.   [Times 2018]
All for Transportation campaign mailers from 2018 are shown here. On Monday, a Hillsborough Circuit Court judge is scheduled to hear arguments on the legal validity of the Nov. 8 referendum for a 1% sales tax for transportation. [Times 2018]
Published Oct. 6|Updated Oct. 6

TAMPA — The road toward a transportation sales tax in Hillsborough County is detouring to a circuit courtroom.

A decision on whether the ballot question on the proposed 1% sales tax for transportation continues to voting booths next month will fall to Hillsborough Circuit Court Judge Anne-Leigh Gaylord Moe. She is scheduled to hear arguments Monday in the case of Karen Jaroch vs. Hillsborough County over the planned referendum for a 1% sales tax for transportation.

Both sides have presented the court with their arguments in legal filings.

Jaroch contends the Nov. 8 ballot question is illegal because the language is ambiguous and misleading. Voters could mistakenly believe they are authorizing specific spending on distinct transportation projects, according to filings from Jaroch’s attorney, Samuel J. Salario Jr.

The county’s response? Bunk.

“The only question presented to the voters is whether to levy a transportation sales surtax. Any suggestion otherwise is pure sophistry,” the county’s outside counsel, Douglas Smith, wrote in court papers.

The referendum and accompanying legal arguments certainly are familiar. Four years ago, voters approved a 1% sales tax for transportation by a 57% to 43% margin.

That proposal spelled out how portions of the money raised would be spent. Hillsborough Commissioner Stacy White sued and his legal team argued the tax should be voided because state law requires elected commissioners, not a citizen-initiated ballot referendum, to determine exactly how the proceeds will be appropriated.

The Florida Supreme Court agreed in February 2021 and the state ordered businesses to stop collecting the tax. It eventually generated nearly $570 million, including interest, and the fate of that money remains in limbo after a Legislative Budget Commission failed to take up the matter during a Sept. 9 meeting.

In the meantime, a Hillsborough commission majority crafted its own sales tax ordinance and agreed to another referendum for voters to consider. It asks:

“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.”

Much of the legal arguments contained in court filings focus on the ballot including those geographic locations and types of transportation fixes.

“The county has buried the chief purpose of the referendum in a litany of irrelevant items upon which voters are not voting and, indeed, are legally ineligible to vote,” according to Jaroch, resurrecting White’s arguments that only county commissioners can authorize the spending.

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The county said the specific jurisdictions and project types simply provide context of what the tax revenue could be spent upon. Listing examples “is a far cry from a promise to fund a particular project in a particular location, particularly in a county spanning over 1,200 square miles.

“... The referendum makes no promises about what projects would be built or where. Any reasonable voter, particularly one who observes his or her duty to ‘do the research,’ would know he or she is only voting on whether to approve the surtax,” the county said in a court filing.

Though the wrangling focuses on ballot wordsmithing, the court filings also reveal, with some not-so-subtle snark, the politics at work.

Jaroch accused the county of “trying to pull a fast one” with a “political sales job” that “engages in logrolling by trying to persuade voters to approve a surtax they might otherwise reject by promising them things they like.”

Jaroch’s motion also notes the ballot removed the commitment in the 2018 ballot language to “relieve rush hour bottlenecks.”

“Apparently, that is a problem even the county thinks the surtax can’t fix,” the motion stated.

The county, meanwhile, described some of Jaroch’s arguments as “misused legal jargon or fallacy” and talking points from opponents of the referendum.

The county also notes the issues about ballot wording were asked and answered in rulings from Circuit Judge Rex Barbas in the prior court fight. It’s why the county said it substantively used the same language this time around.

Jaroch, of Northdale, is a Gulf states regional coordinator for the conservative group, Heritage Action for America. She is a former board member for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority and was a leading opponent of the voter-rejected Hillsborough County rail referendum in 2010.

She previously told the Tampa Bay Times: “This lawsuit is about getting the government to be honest with the people. We deserve a ballot question as prescribed by law and free of misleading and ambiguous verbiage.’'

She declined further comment this week, saying the court pleadings speak for themselves.

Watching this legal maneuvering from the sidelines is All for Transportation, the citizens group advocating for the referendum.

“There are always going to be a handful of people who oppose everything, but provide no solutions for our community’s most pressing challenges,” said Christina Barker, co-founder of All for Transportation. “This lawsuit is a political ploy to confuse voters and hold our community back from finally fixing our failing transportation system.”

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