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Florida county transit tax vote contested

A new lawsuit filed in Florida seeks to halt a transportation referendum scheduled for the fall ballot in the state’s fourth-largest county.

Hillsborough County voters are expected to vote in November on whether to raise the local sales tax by 1% for transportation purposes.

Karen Jaroch, a Tampa resident who is the coordinator of a conservative advocacy group, wants to block the vote. She filed a lawsuit last week against putting the question on the ballot.

New legal challenge to transport tax

Court challenges of transportation tax issues are not unique to the county that includes the city of Tampa.

In November 2018, Hillsborough County voters approved a question to raise the local sales tax from 7% to 8%. About 55% of the new revenue was to be applied to road works. The remaining funds were designated to pay for new and improved transit options.

Shortly after the referendum was passed, multiple legal challenges were launched. Critics, including Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White, argued the tax was unconstitutional and took over the county commission.

The issue eventually went to the Florida Supreme Court, where plaintiffs argued the charter amendment was “misleading” to voters. Moreover, they said the spending parameters were set by the referendum and not by elected officials.

In early 2021, judges declared the transport tax unconstitutional.

Second time a charm?

Hillsborough County Commissioners recently voted to include a question on the fall ballot for a 1% transit tax. The tax would be in place for 30 years.

It is estimated that the sales tax will raise $342 million in the first year.

Supporters say the money is needed to avoid losing federal funding. They point out that a local counterpart is necessary to obtain federal funds estimated at $229 million.

If approved by voters, around half – 45% – of the revenue would go to the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.

The county and the three cities would get 54.5% of the revenue. The shares would be based on population. Another half percent would go to the Hillsborough Transportation Planning Organization.

The funds would be used for projects that include additional lanes, lighting upgrades, and the construction and improvement of sidewalks and curb extensions.

The new legal challenge says the ballot does not meet Florida’s requirement for a single, narrow question.

“They are misinforming voters that their vote on the referendum, rather than the decisions of the Board of County Commissioners, will establish the uses to which the proceeds of the surcharge will be put and that those uses will be set in stone for life. 30 years of the proposed surtax,” the suit states. LL

More election coverage

Keith Goble, the state legislative editor for Land Line Media, tracks transportation ballot issues across the United States. Here are some recent articles by him.