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Give Hillsborough voters their say on transit | Editorial
The 1% tax referendum should stay on the Nov. ballot
 
Sean Cousins pushes a pallet of mail-in-ballots at the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections warehouse as workers begin to distributing them in Tampa on Oct. 6. With voting already underway, Hillsborough is seeking to reinstate a transportation referendum that was stricken from the ballot.
Sean Cousins pushes a pallet of mail-in-ballots at the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections warehouse as workers begin to distributing them in Tampa on Oct. 6. With voting already underway, Hillsborough is seeking to reinstate a transportation referendum that was stricken from the ballot. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Oct. 27, 2022

The ruling by a Hillsborough County court invaliding November’s transportation referendum was a judicial stretch and another setback for the major, growing metro region. Yet again, a Florida court has usurped the will of Hillsborough voters on what should be an electoral issue, and the impacts to transportation and growth, and other civic priorities, could be felt for years.

Hillsborough County commissioners voted 5-2 in April to put a 1% sales surtax on the November ballot, with the proceeds, expected to generate $342 million in its first year, to fund road, mass transit, pedestrian and other transportation improvements over a 30-year period. But this month, presiding over a legal challenge to the tax by a conservative activist, Hillsborough County Circuit Court Judge Ann-Leigh Gaylord Moe ruled the measure was misleading and struck it from the ballot. The county has appealed and supporters are urging a yes vote in hopes a higher court reinstates the referendum.

Moe declared the ballot measure invalid because “it fails to clearly, unambiguously and accurately state the chief purpose of the referendum.” She wrote that “a reasonable voter” would not understand the ballot language because it was chosen as a “political consideration” and that voters might assume they were merely reprising their support for a similar tax that passed in 2018 and was later invalidated by the Florida Supreme Court.

This reasoning amounts to supposition soup that goes far beyond a narrow examination of the ballot language. The ballot question is simple and straightforward: Do voters support a 30-year tax for a range of transportation improvements across the county? The issue before Moe wasn’t the 2018 tax. After all, some Hillsborough voters didn’t even live here four years ago. So why conflate the two referendums? And why go overboard in crawling inside the minds of votes? Moe’s order was a crystal ball analysis that generated the very confusion the lawsuit sought to find.

It’s worth remembering that a different Hillsborough trial judge reached a very different conclusion about the same tax in 2018, calling its passage an “evident” outcome of the voters’ well informed “desire to improve transportation.” Could Hillsborough voters truly have been confused only four years later when faced with virtually the same ballot language? And if preventing chaos is the goal, how is that achieved by the court striking a referendum after the county elections office had already mailed out 320,000 ballots?

Judges must have a clear and compelling reason to preempt a vote. That’s certainly not the case here. Moe will hold a hearing today to consider whether to lift a stay on the order. That stay was issued automatically after the county appealed. Lifting the stay would effectively deny the county and Hillsborough voters their due process right to seek meaningful relief from the appeals court. With early voting underway, and the clock ticking toward Election Day on Nov. 8, the trial court should not further chill voter participation in the referendum.

Whatever the outcome here, the damage from two court decisions has been done. Rather than make any headway on meeting Hillsborough’s $13 billion in needed transportation improvements, these court cases have contributed to lower public confidence in government, frustrated activists who have championed these causes for years and called into question who will carry this baton if the tax is bounced by the courts once again. That is a loss for residents in every corner of the county and a recipe for civic stagnation.

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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.