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Florida Supreme Court to decide future of Hillsborough's transportation tax

The Florida Supreme Court in Tallahassee, where justices will hear a challenge to the one-cent transportation sales tax approved by Hillsborough County voters in November. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
The Florida Supreme Court in Tallahassee, where justices will hear a challenge to the one-cent transportation sales tax approved by Hillsborough County voters in November. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Jul. 19, 2019

TAMPA — A lawsuit challenging Hillsborough County's one-cent transportation tax is going to the Florida Supreme Court.

Bob Emerson, 65, of Apollo Beach, filed an appeal Thursday regarding the tax's bond validation, a process in which a judge decides whether the county can borrow against the new revenue source. Its purpose is to reassure potential lenders that the tax money used to repay bond holders won't be challenged in the future.

Commissioner Stacy White followed with an appeal of his own Friday morning in a separate lawsuit. White's case challenged the constitutionality of the tax, arguing it usurped power from county commissioners.

The two suits, which each asked a court to decide whether the tax was legal, were linked and heard by the same judge in May.

Circuit Court Judge Rex Barbas issued a final ruling on both matters July 9, triggering a 30-day window for any party to appeal. He validated the bonds and upheld the tax, but struck certain portions of the charter amendment as invalid.

Appeals in bond validations skip the district court of appeals and go directly to the state Supreme Court. White's case would go next to the second district court of appeals, but the commissioner said he is asking that his appeal bypass the district court so it can travel through the legal system alongside the bond validation.

"The good news is the Florida Supreme Court decision, either way, will be the law of the land with these types of issues," White said.

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Barbas upheld the tax in his June ruling, but agreed with White on some facets. The judge struck parts of the charter amendment related to an independent oversight committee and language that specified how the tax revenue should be spent.

"We saw so much severed ... you can't help but ask how would that have impacted voters' decisions at the ballot box," White said. "It's just impossible to predict what the outcome would have been.

"The best thing to do now is just to throw the whole thing out and let the dust settle and let the county commission or the citizens start from scratch and put something out there that's lawful."

White said he is optimistic that the Supreme Court will rule on the legality of the tax by the end of the year.

Earlier this week, Hillsborough County Commissioners voted to reinstate the spending categories Barbas had struck from the charter amendment. The allocations send 45 percent of the tax revenue to the county's transit agency and divide the rest of the money between the county, Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City. The local governments must then spend a certain amount of the revenue in different categories, such as intersections and safety.

That ordinance will face two public hearings and a final commission vote before going into effect.

Fifty-seven percent of voters approved the sales tax in November, but it faced challenges almost immediately. White filed his case Dec. 4, and county commissioners filed a motion for the bond validation hearing in February. A class-action suit followed shortly after.

Emerson replaced John Cimino, a Temple Terrace resident, as the plaintiff in that case in April.

Emerson also joined the bond validation case as an intervener, which allows him to file motions, make arguments and participate in the proceedings. Coker Law — a Jacksonville firm that specializes in medical malpractice cases along with vehicle crashes, personal injury and workers compensation — represents him in both matters.

Emerson did not return calls for comment.

Other parties in the bond validation — including Tyler Hudson, chair of All For Transportation, the advocacy group that put the sales tax on the ballot — can file a separate appeal within the next few weeks.

"The public spoke loudly in November when they overwhelmingly approved our plan," Hudson said in a statement. "We will continue to fight all the way to the Florida Supreme Court further attempts to obstruct the will of the voters and to delay progress."

Times staff writer Anastasia Dawson contributed to this report. Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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