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  1. Opinion

On transportation tax, the people score

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Rex Barbas scored one for voters who were willing to tax themselves to do something about our transportation woes. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Jun. 18

In a time when some politicians feel free to reroute, redefine or even ignore with impunity what voters clearly want, score one for We The People.

From medical marijuana to restoring felon voting rights (or not), it's become a Florida tradition: elected officials who slow-walk or muck about with voter-approved initiatives that perhaps do not reflect those officials' particular politics. Who cares if the people have spoken?

Under attack in Hillsborough County: The one-cent sales tax that 57 percent of the electorate approved in November — a 30-year tax expected to raise $280 million annually and address serious transportation concerns from road maintenance to traffic congestion to transit. If you ride the roads around here, you know how far behind we are.

So score one for moving forward with this tax amendment to the county charter, Hillsborough's Constitution.

Except that, no doubt to the delight of the anti-tax, anti-transit crowd that fought and lost the referendum, Republican County Commissioner Stacy White stepped in and sued.

White called the tax unconstitutional. He said the summary on the ballot was "defective" and did not clearly explain what voters were voting for. (And here 57 percent of us read it and thought we got it. Dimwits!) He said the measure violated state law and took power from the elected county commission. He said an independent oversight committee's functions were not authorized.

So we awaited the fate of transportation. Move ahead or stand still?

Like a lot of considered court rulings, this eagerly awaited one handed down Monday by Hillsborough Circuit Judge Rex Barbas had something for all sides of the argument, including White's. But no question its big victory goes to the citizens.

Voters made clear they want to improve transportation, the judge wrote, and the language on the ballot "more than adequately" met the requirements for explaining what voters were voting for. (We're not so dumb after all.) With that, the tax stays.

Then the devil in the details: Barbas also struck down language that specified by percentage how the money gets spent — 20 percent for maintaining existing streets, roads and bridges, 12 percent for bike or pedestrian infrastructure, 27 percent for safety improvements, 26 percent for intersections, the rest to a general transportation fund.

He also ditched that oversight committee's powers to withhold funding and approve projects.

A particularly sad casualty of his ruling was Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, the county's long-beleaguered and underfunded public bus system. (A true Southerner might describe the transit agency as the red-headed stepchild at the family reunion.)

The bus agency stood to see its budget more than double thanks to that penny for transportation. With the judge's ruling, that's no sure thing.

But even with those changes, the judge found the voter-approved amendment — the will of the people — would still be "completely operational."

Possible appeals and future court rulings notwithstanding, how the tax revenue gets spent will now be up to the Hillsborough County Commission.

Which is an interesting twist.

Could the board in its current incarnation — with its newly Democratic majority and pro-transportation bent — mirror the spending percentages that the voters saw and apparently liked when they said yes in the first place?

Commissioners could, particularly if they are mindful that the blueprint probably had a lot to do with the tax getting passed.

Stay tuned. But how the commission handles this will say a lot about what our local elected officials think of the will of the people they serve.

Contact Sue Carlton at scarlton@tampabay.com.

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