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Will Hillsborough County get to use its new transportation tax? A judge will rule soon.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Rex Barbas listens to arguments March 14 in lawsuit seeking to overturn the one-cent transportation sales tax approved by voters in November. After a second hearing on Friday, he is expected to rule soon. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Hillsborough Circuit Judge Rex Barbas listens to arguments March 14 in lawsuit seeking to overturn the one-cent transportation sales tax approved by voters in November. After a second hearing on Friday, he is expected to rule soon. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published May 31, 2019

TAMPA — A second full day of arguments on the legality of Hillsborough County's one-cent sales tax for transportation concluded Friday without any resolution, leaving the fate of the tax unknown for now.

Both sides wrapped up their arguments on whether the tax, approved by 57 percent of voters in November, is consistent with state law or usurps power from Hillsborough County Commissioners. But Hillsborough Circuit Judge Rex Barbas indicated he would need more time before issuing a ruling. The judge said he intends to do so within two weeks.

His ruling, however, is unlikely to end the six-month saga. The losing side, whichever that may be, is likely to appeal. From there, the case could jump to the Florida Supreme Court.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White first filed the case on Dec. 4. Because White's lawsuit is entwined with a bond validation, the appeal is expected to be expedited to the Supreme Court, which could hear the case as early as August.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Stacy White sues Hillsborough, cities to stop voter-approved transportation tax

Questions about the constitutionality of the tax, which is poised to raise an estimated $280 million annually to fund transportation improvements, surfaced almost immediately after the November election.

White campaigned against the tax and ultimately filed a lawsuit naming 11 defendants including the county government he represents, the state's Department of Revenue, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority bus agency, and the cities of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace.

Barbas ruled in March that White could not challenge the tax in his official capacity as a commissioner. So White filed an amended complaint as a citizen. Then, that hearing was combined with a bond validation lawsuit the county brought against itself in an effort to have a judge determine the legality of the tax as quickly as possible.

Barbas heard the first half of arguments on May 3 before continuing the case to Friday.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Court fight starts over Hillsborough's transportation sales tax. The end is not in sight.

The state has already collected more than $62 million under the tax and sent it to the Hillsborough Clerk of the Circuit Court, which has dispersed the money to the various transportation agencies stipulated in the county charter amendment approved by voters.

Significant time Friday was spent debating whether the spending allocations listed in the amendment were legal. The amendment dictates that the county's transit agency receive 45 percent of the revenue, the county and three cities receive 54 percent, and the county's planning organization the final one percent.

White's attorney, Chris Altenbernd, argued that those percentages, which he called "mandatory restrictions," prevent the county commission from choosing how to spend the revenue as it sees fit. That right, he said, is protected by Florida law.

"Really I think his whole argument boils down to the percentages," Barbas said, referring to Altenbernd. "All the other arguments he's made, he's made to boost this one argument."

But Alan Zimmet, attorney for the county, argued that citizens have the ability to limit the authority of the county commission through the adoption of a charter amendment, citing two Florida Supreme Court cases.

"They set parameters up," Zimmet said. ' "Okay, we're going to tax ourselves. Here's how we want you to use our money.' "

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

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