DeSantis seeks to spend Hillsborough transportation sales tax funds

The governor previously said the money be refunded to taxpayers. Now, he wants it to go to Hillsborough transportation projects.
“We certainly have more than enough transportation needs for that funding," Tampa Mayor Jane Castor told the Times on Tuesday.
“We certainly have more than enough transportation needs for that funding," Tampa Mayor Jane Castor told the Times on Tuesday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Dec. 6, 2023|Updated Dec. 6, 2023

TAMPA — Remember the now more than $570 million collected from the Hillsborough transportation sales tax supported by county voters in 2018 before it was overturned by Florida Supreme Court?

Gov. Ron DeSantis wants the money to be used on transportation projects in Hillsborough rather than on a tax refund — a process he had recommended a year prior.

The directive is included in the governor’s proposed budget, released Tuesday, and calls for the money to be sent to the Florida Department of Transportation, who have until next September to craft a list of projects to spend it on.

“Good news,” Tampa Mayor Jane Castor told the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday afternoon. “We certainly have more than enough transportation needs for that funding.”

About 57% of Hillsborough voters approved the 1% sales tax increase in 2018. Under that plan, 45% of the tax money was earmarked for transit. The surtax was collected from Jan. 1, 2019, until the Florida Supreme Court ruled it illegal in February 2021 after a legal challenge from then-Hillsborough Commissioner Stacy White.

If the Legislature agrees to DeSantis’ latest proposal, the money will be transferred from the Department of Revenue to the state’s Transportation Trust Fund. Tampa Bay’s regional district of the Florida Department of Transportation did not respond to a phone message seeking comment.

In his last proposed budget, DeSantis had called for the Department of Revenue to work with a third-party claims administrator to set up the refund process and for the rest to be spent on roads and bridges, but not mass transit.

Tampa’s earlier transportation priorities had included $66 million for extending the TECO streetcar line and a separate bus project to connect the University of South Florida to downtown. After DeSantis prohibited mass transit from spending proposals, the city’s list focused exclusively on a $150 million package of resurfacing streets, replacing bridges and adding sidewalks.

Lawmakers couldn’t agree to a plan for the money last year.

What is Tampa hoping for this time around? The details still needed to be ironed out, Mayor Castor said.

Much would depend on whether transit was off-limits or not. She said the city enjoys an “outstanding relationship” with both Hillsborough County and the state Department of Transportation and she looks forward to the project prioritizes getting drafted.