TAMPA — A Hillsborough County Commission majority isn’t ready to wave the white flag in its fight to try to allow voters to consider a sales tax for transportation.
In a 5-2 party-line vote Thursday, the Democratic members of the commission said they would appeal the decision from Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Anne-Leigh Gaylord Moe, who invalidated the ballot referendum earlier this week.
“The time is now to continue to allow our voters to vote for this transportation tax,” said Commissioner Gwen Myers.
“What is the danger in allowing people to vote?” said Commissioner Harry Cohen.
“I believe the ballot language is misleading. Roads are mentioned first in the ballot language, but is not first in appropriation by a long shot,” countered Commissioner Stacy White.
He and Commissioner Ken Hagan dissented.
The 1% sales tax proposal has been projected to generate $342 million in its first full year of collections for mass transit; road, intersection and sidewalk construction; and other projects. The 30-year tax was expected to help whittle a $13 billion backlog of needed improvements, advocates argued. Opponents said the county should prioritize its current spending to set aside more dollars for transportation projects.
Karen Jaroch of Northdale, a regional coordinator for the conservative group Heritage Action for America and a former board member for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, challenged the referendum ballot as “ambiguous and misleading.” Her attorney, Samuel Salario Jr., argued the ballot broke state law because it cited types of transportation fixes and specific geographic locations around the county that the tax could finance.
“It misleads the public,” Moe agreed from the bench Monday, granting a request to quash the referendum.
The county’s effort is flying somewhat blind at the moment. Moe’s written ruling had not been filed as of Thursday afternoon. But, the county’s notice of appeal will be accompanied by an automatic stay that delays enforcement of Moe’s decision. Jaroch, however, can ask either Moe or the 2nd District Court of Appeal to lift the stay.
“As long as the stay is in place, it’s a green light for the election. If its lifted, it’s a red light,” said Rob Brazel, chief assistant county attorney.
A public hearing before the commission vote drew nearly two dozen speakers.
“The ballot language was politically polluted,” said Sharon Calvert of Pinellas County and a leader of the group No Tax for Tracks.
“Everyone in Hillsborough County can claim some form of transportation expertise. You’re always a rider, a pedestrian or a driver, said Michael Maurino, executive director of the Westshore Alliance. “The people have earned the right to use their expertise to decide what the transportation network should look like.”
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Four years ago, voters approved a 1% sales tax for transportation by a 57% to 43% margin. The Florida Supreme Court voided the tax in February 2021 on a legal challenge from Commissioner White. His legal team argued state law requires elected commissioners, not a citizen-initiated ballot referendum, to determine how the proceeds will be appropriated.
Under the sales tax proposal, 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.