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Group joins Supreme Court battle over Hillsborough's transportation tax

TAMPA — The legal saga surrounding Hillsborough County's one-cent transportation sales tax continued Thursday when All For Transportation, the advocacy group that helped pass the tax, filed two appeals in cases bound for the Florida Supreme Court.

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

Circuit Judge Rex Barbas upheld the tax last month but struck the new, voter-approved language in the county charter that dictated how the revenue should be spent. Two appeals were filed shortly after, one by Apollo Beach resident Robert Emerson and one by Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White, who has challenged the validity of the sales tax since voters approved it last year.

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

With its own appeals Thursday, All For Transportation keeps its hand in the proceedings as they move to the state's high court. The actions are known as cross-appeals.

"Unfortunately, some partisan individuals won't accept the ruling of our local courts ... and are denying people what they voted for and delaying transportation projects that can save drivers time, make roads safer, and create new transit options," said Tyler Hudson, chairman of the advocacy group.

The group also hired another lawyer for the appeals: former Florida Supreme Court justice Raoul Cantero of White and Case LLP. Cantero was appointed to the state's top court by then-Gov. Jeb Bush in 2002 and served until 2008. He is based in Miami.

Because Emerson's appeal concerns the "bond validation" process that would allow Hillsborough to borrow against the sales tax revenue, it skips the district court of appeal and goes directly to the state Supreme Court. White's appeal, meanwhile, goes next to the 2nd District Court of Appeal, but the county commissioner said he is asking that it be allowed to travel through the legal system alongside Emerson's case.

"We haven't seen anything unexpected at this point," White said in reaction to the cross-appeals by All For Transportation. "I think we're headed to the Florida Supreme Court here and they'll render a final legal opinion, and that will be the law of the land."

Fifty-seven percent of voters approved the transportation sales tax in November, which is expected to raise $280 million in the first year. Barbas found the tax to be legal, but he struck portions of the charter amendment that determined how the revenue was spent.

Hillsborough County commissioners voted last month to reinstate those spending categories, which include sending 45 percent of the revenue to the county's transit agency. That ordinance will face two public hearings and a final commission vote before going into effect.

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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