1. Opinion

Column: Why I filed a lawsuit against the Hillsborough transit referendum

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Published Dec. 10, 2018

In the recent general election, the Hillsborough County Charter was amended by an initiative to enact a 30-year transportation surtax. This initiative included provisions that span far beyond the enactment of the surtax. So, I have filed a lawsuit in my official capacity as a county commissioner to challenge the Hillsborough County transportation referendum on the grounds that it is inconsistent with Florida statutes.

Hillsborough County's charter is like the county's constitution, with one key exception: Hillsborough County is not sovereign; counties in Florida are legally classified as political subdivisions of the state. This means a county charter may not enact provisions that are inconsistent with the powers given to counties by Florida law, including Florida statutes and the Florida Constitution.

Florida statutes are general laws. The referendum that passed is a special law; however, special laws cannot supersede general laws, which is what the referendum seeks to do. If this were permissible under Florida law, then private citizens, with respect to any issue, could take matters into their own hands in order to contravene the general laws of Florida. This is why I filed the lawsuit: in order to protect the rule of law in Florida.

With this in mind, it's important to note a few things:

-- This transportation surtax was placed on the ballot in accordance with Section 8.03 of the county charter, which allows the charter to be amended by citizen-led initiatives and prescribes what must be done in order to amend the charter in this way.

-- A county may enact a transportation surtax pursuant to Chapter 212, Florida Statute.

-- I have taken an oath of office promising to "support, protect, and defend the Constitution and Government of the United States and of the State of Florida, and the Hillsborough County Charter."

Section 8.03 of the Hillsborough County Charter exists for good reason. I strongly believe the power to control government should always be vested with the people. Unfortunately, the irony is that this provision within the charter can actually be used by monied special interests to bypass elected officials, and everyday citizens, in an attempt to control government. With this route, there are no safeguards to ensure the amendment is consistent with Florida law like there would be going through the county commission or with the Charter Review Board. In this instance, I believe the transportation initiative in question was placed on the ballot utilizing paid staff, the ballot summary was confusing and it was done with little regard to the everyday citizen.

In addition to enacting a tax, this charter amendment puts in place several other provisions that are inconsistent with Florida law. First, it apportions how the tax revenue must be spent. This is inconsistent with Florida statutes governing transportation surtax referenda, as it takes away the duty and obligation of elected county commissioners to budget and appropriate tax revenues. It denies the people of this county the ability to petition their elected officials to change course as things change, as this initiative locks the funds into being allocated a certain way for 30 years. Second, this initiative creates an independent oversight committee with veto power over specific transportation projects the county commission might seek to fund. This would create a scenario where an unelected body, unaccountable to the people, has the power to steer the expenditure of the people's hard-earned tax dollars toward projects that might not meet the will of the people. Instead, it should be elected officials, directly accountable to the citizens, that have sole authority on expending these funds. Florida statutes are clear on this, which is why the creation of this independent oversight committee conflicts with state law.

This issue is bigger than Hillsborough County or any individual's philosophy on new taxes. It's about protecting our system of government, which empowers the everyday citizen. If the judicial branch of our government agrees that these charter provisions are unlawful, I will work diligently with the citizens of this county and with my fellow commissioners to search for a meaningful plan that benefits citizens across the county, to address our transportation needs. If the judicial branch rules the charter initiative should stand, I will dutifully and faithfully implement these provisions.

There's too much on the line not to question the lawfulness of this amendment. Our system of government is on the line, the true power of the people is on the line and we deserve answers before moving forward.

Stacy White is the Hillsborough County commissioner for District 4.