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  1. Opinion

A replacement Hillsborough transportation tax should mirror the existing tax | Editorial

County commissioners should prepare another one-cent tax for the November ballot in case the Florida Supreme Court overturns the tax approved by voters.

Hillsborough County commissioners are wise to plan a discussion for Wednesday on whether to create a backup plan in case the Florida Supreme Court strikes down the one-cent transportation tax that county voters approved in 2018. They should not backtrack. Voters clearly wanted a full penny tax for a range of transportation improvements, and the commission should respect those intentions.

Commission chairman Les Miller and Commissioner Kimberly Overman acted responsibly by scheduling this discussion. The commission has a narrow window to put a tax on the November ballot. Given the pointed questions by several Supreme Court justices during oral arguments this month regarding a challenge to the existing one-cent tax, commissioners need to act quickly in case the court overturns the will of the voters. The county has lost enough time and the state of its transportation system is only moving backward.

Miller had proposed a half-cent levy before reconsidering Monday and supporting a full cent. That’s a wise decision. It’s what voters endorsed when they overwhelmingly passed the tax in 2018. That campaign, which highlighted the county’s transportation problems, is still fresh and firmly in mind. Even a full penny sales tax, which would generate about $9 billion over 30 years, falls short of meeting Hillsborough’s $12 billion in unmet transportation needs. A half-penny would inevitably force a stark choice between funding mass transit or road improvements. The key take-away from 2018 is that voters want a balanced proposal that benefits city and suburban residents alike. Only a full penny enables Hillsborough to truly move forward.

Miller floated the half-penny idea as a practical alternative that would generate wider electoral support. But there was no evidence voters wanted a half-penny. The referendum passed in 2018 because voters saw the necessary resources would be raised. Of the two local tax initiatives on the Hillsborough ballot that year, the full penny for transportation drew slightly more votes (57 percent) than the half-penny for school improvements (56 percent). And activists and the business community are not going to get excited about a half measure that falls so short of the goal of only two years ago. All for Transportation, the citizens’ group that led the 2018 tax initiative, expressed its opposition to the half-cent plan. Miller listened to the feedback and did the right thing, announcing Monday he would join those in support of a full penny.

Miller and Overman should be applauded for working to ensure that a court decision that ignores the intent of the voters does not wreak havoc on this community. The voters spoke loudly in 2018 from every corner of the county. The commission should stick with a full penny sales tax and if the need arises work vigorously to make another convincing case this November.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news

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