The Florida Supreme Court’s decision Thursday invalidating Hillsborough County’s transportation tax was simply stunning — for what it said about the court’s legal reasoning, for its contempt of the voters, and for the court’s willingness to let the legal arena settle a purely political question. Hillsborough County residents are the big losers, now that billions of dollars in transportation improvements have been wiped from the table. But the entire region stands to suffer unless Hillsborough moves quickly to win again at the ballot box in 2022.
The court, in a 4-1 decision (with two newer justices not participating), ruled the one-cent transportation sales tax was unconstitutional because it restricted how the proceeds could be spent. More than 57 percent of Hillsborough voters approved the tax in November 2018. But Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White quickly filed a legal challenge, arguing the measure usurped spending authority from the county commission. In 2019, a Hillsborough circuit judge invalidated the budgetary set-asides for various transportation projects but upheld the tax. In its ruling released Thursday, the high court said the spending plan was so inseparable from the levy itself that the entire measure was unconstitutional.
“It cannot reasonably be said that the voters would have approved the tax without the accompanying spending plan,” Chief Justice Charles Canady wrote.
What does the court base this on — polls that don’t exist or a feel for the electorate 275 miles away? It’s a presumptuous statement that ignores the history behind the referendum and the logic of proposing a balanced transportation plan. The 2018 referendum was decades in the making. After failed efforts in the past, voters saw it as a serious step toward creating better and safer commuting options. That’s why the vote wasn’t close, and why it passed in the cities and suburbs alike. As the trial judge, who actually lives here, wrote in his June, 17, 2019 ruling: “It is evident that the voters of Hillsborough County desire to improve transportation needs.” Moreover, he added: “It is further obvious to this court that the electorate made their desires clear.”
In the lone dissent, Supreme Court Justice Jorge Labarga rightly faulted the majority’s appetite for judicial activism. He noted correctly that the referendum — even after removing the budgetary set-asides — still achieved its primary purpose of generating income for transportation improvements. What’s more, Labarga wrote, the court was reversing its history of applying a high standard before overturning a voter-approved amendment. “A majority of voters in Hillsborough County understood it,” Labarga noted, “and expressed their desire to support it.”
The court’s ruling was silent on what Hillsborough should do with the more than $472 million the tax has generated; local agencies chose not to spend the money pending the outcome of the legal case. It’d be doubly insulting to the voters if these funds are not ultimately used for their intended purpose.
Hillsborough needs to move on from this setback and return to the voters to get the job done with another ballot initiative. If anything, the pent-up demand for this transportation initiative will only be more pronounced next year. But 2022 will be tough, given COVID’s effect on the economy and the potential the Hillsborough County School District could also have a new tax on the ballot.
The Tampa Bay region, as other metros across the country, is still struggling to manage the coronavirus pandemic, and local governments and business leaders have plenty on their plates. While the high court had the final say on the 2018 tax, that pinched view should not consign this region to endless gridlock, or cause local leaders to lose faith in the public’s desire for a better transportation system, and their willingness to fund it.
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