HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday struck down the one-cent sales tax approved by Hillsborough County voters in 2018 to support public transportation and fixing county roads.
“Through that charter amendment the voters approved both a transportation surtax and elaborate directives for allocating the tax proceeds,” Justice Charles Canady wrote in the majority opinion. “But the spending directives are unconstitutional in that they conflict with a state law that gives the county commission the authority to allocate such funds.”
Nearly 60 percent of Hillsborough voters approved the referendum that the citizen’s group “All for Transportation” got on the ballot in November 2018.
“While we respect the Florida Supreme Court’s decision, we are disappointed in the ruling as we have many unmet transportation needs in this community,” said the official statement from Hillsborough County. “This dedicated funding source would have been beneficial in helping to build and repair the County’s roadways and transportation network. Although this is a financial setback, Hillsborough County remains dedicated to finding solutions that will allow us to tackle our transportation issues in order to keep our residents safe through well designed and maintained infrastructure.”
All For Transportation co-chairman Tyler Hudson said the court’s decision is a “temporary setback toward fixing a generational problem” that is an insult to Hillsborough County voters.
“The issue that I think the court has is how this was done, not what was done,” Hudson said.
In the dissenting opinion from the court, Justice Jorge Labarga wrote that the amendment “still adequately defined its primary purpose: to provide funding for transportation infrastructure. A majority of voters in Hillsborough County understood it as such and expressed their desire to support it.”
Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White (R) filed a lawsuit arguing the transportation tax was illegal.
“The way in which this referendum was done and the fact that this unlawful tax levy was collected for over two years are both surprisingly reckless,” White said at a press conference applauding the court’s decision.
Since going into effect, the sales tax generated nearly half a billion dollars in revenue. The court’s ruling did not address what will happen will that taxpayer money.
“That money belongs to the community and it needs to be put in service of fixing the community’s demand for a better, safer, more equitable transportation system,” Hudson said.
Commissioner White said the county commission should “tighten its belt” and address transportation needs within the existing budget.
“This was an unlawful levy,” White said, “so the people who paid into this now have a right to receive their money back if they chose and that’s what the class action lawsuit is all about.”
According to the county’s statement, the plan is to “work closely with the Clerk of the Court; the cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City; HART; and the Florida Department of Revenue to find a fair and reasonable solution to deal with the surtax dollars already collected in a manner that remains transparent to our taxpayers.”
More than half of the sales tax fund had been slated to go to the county and its cities for road repairs and projects to improve traffic flow.
The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority had planned to boost bus service. The communications director said in an email more than $214 million dollars of already collected money had been allocated to HART.
“HART’s challenge in our mission – funding – does not change. We continue to do more with less – as one of the most underfunded transit systems per capita in the country,” the agency said in a statement. “One thing that is clear, Hillsborough County voters showed overwhelming support for alternative transportation solutions. We look forward to working with our community partners to continue HART’s mission and keep Hillsborough County moving.”
Tampa Bay Lightning owner and businessman Jeff Vinik expressed disappointment with the court’s ruling in a statement he provided to 8 On Your Side.
“I have always believed Tampa Bay is a region with unlimited potential,” Vinik said. “While today’s court ruling is a setback, we must look ahead and forge a new path forward for 2022. This investment is too important to the future of our community to delay any further.”
Congresswoman Kathy Castor (D-FL-14) also slammed the decision in Tallahassee to overturn the transportation tax.
“The opponents and the Florida Supreme Court went out of their way to invalidate what the overwhelming majority of Hillsborough County citizens supported: more transit options, safer roads, less congestion, and clean air,” Rep. Castor said in a statement. “Beyond that, a USF College of Business study found that an increased availability of transit would close the income equality gap, reduce the poverty rate and improve economic mobility. This ruling also puts our community at a disadvantage when it comes to bringing federal transportation investments and related jobs to the Tampa area.”