It takes some nerve for the Republican meddlers in the Florida House to seek to overturn the will of Hillsborough voters who overwhelmingly supported a one-cent sales tax for countywide transportation improvements. The House’s intervention in a legal challenge is an overreach legally and politically, and it’s an insult to residents. It’s also further proof that Tallahassee knows no limits when it comes to ignoring referendum results and interfering in local decisions.
The action comes in a brief in a Florida Supreme Court case that combines challenges by both Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White and a Hillsborough resident who seek to invalidate the tax. Hillsborough Circuit Judge Rex Barbas upheld the tax in June, but he invalidated provisions allocating specific portions of the revenue to certain projects and giving veto power over spending to an independent oversight board. Barbas ruled those provisions violated the commission’s decision-making authority.
The brief House general counsel Adam Tanenbaum filed Tuesday claims the referendum was fatally flawed because it mentioned both the levy and how the taxes might be used, thereby creating a “deceptive” proposal that “must be stricken in its entirety." Tanenbaum said the county had “no authority” to suggest how the proceeds might be used, “presumably” because the Legislature “chose not to allow for adornment of the levy question.” Cue the call for judicial activism.
For all of politically motivated maneuvering to de-legitimize the referendum, the measure was crafted according to the process outlined in state law and the county charter. The measure passed in November with 57 percent of the vote, embraced by both urban and suburban voters who knew very well what they were supporting. While state law doesn’t require the ballot question to say how the proceeds would be used, it does not forbid it. And the state statute allows a range of uses for a transportation tax - exactly what the ballot amendment proposed.
How this can be construed as “deceptive” is anybody’s guess. Is this the latest rationale? Voters were too informed? White initially argued the ballot language was defective because it wasn’t informative enough. Now the House is arguing there was too much. Can the opponents at least get their stories straight?
As the trial judge noted, voters were bombarded with advertising and news coverage on the tax prior to the election. “It is evident that the voters of Hillsborough County desire to improve transportation needs," Barbas wrote in his ruling. “It is further obvious to this Court that the electorate made their desires clear.”
Republicans in Tallahassee starve local governments of resources. Then they stand in the way when communities find solutions by taxing themselves. House Speaker Jose Oliva should recognize where his input is needed and where it isn’t. The Miami Lakes Republican garnered about 26,000 votes in his last contested election in 2016. That’s half the number who voted in a Tampa City Council race in April, and less than one-tenth the number of Hillsborough voters who supported the transportation tax. If there’s a local decision the speaker wants to contest, the least he could do is stick to his own back yard.
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