TAMPA, Florida. – Hillsborough Commissioners took a step forward in their bid to get the county’s growing transportation needs back on track on Wednesday.
With a 5-2 vote, commissioners agreed to hold a public hearing on April 20 to discuss a proposed one-cent transit system sales surcharge. If approved, the referendum could go to voters in the November ballot.
Like the transportation sales tax approved by Hillsborough voters in 2018, the new proposal would help fund projects to build better roads and sidewalks, improve safety, expand public transit and alleviate the county’s growing congestion problems.
“It’s very clear that our residents want us to work on our roads, they want us to make them safer,” Commission Chair Kimberly Overman said. “We’ve had to sit on our transportation plans and funding for almost four years now and it’s so unfortunate.”
Hillsborough is also sitting on more than half a billion dollars from the transportation sales tax that was approved by 57% of voters in November 2018. Last year, Florida’s Supreme Court ruled the tax unconstitutional, as the referendum did not give the county commission full authority over the funds raised.
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Overman said the new referendum would not encounter those same problems.
“It’s very much in the style of what was passed in 2018, without the legal issues,” Overman said.
It could, however, face a major problem securing sufficient support in a very different economic climate.
“I’ve come to realize that while the plan is good, now is not the time,” said Commissioner Ken Hagan, who has backed past sales tax referendums. “The circumstances today are very different. We are not in 2016 or 2018. On the contrary. To say that people are struggling today is an understatement.”
Commissioner Stacy White, who also opposed moving forward with the proposal, criticized the now year-long debate over what to do with the $521 million tax revenue her own lawsuit helped invalidate and freeze.
“I just want to remind everyone that we still have the issue of over $500 million from the illegal referendum that hasn’t been returned to the people yet,” White said. “If we can’t work this advice together and we’re going to fight, then it might as well be a fight worth fighting for.”
Ultimately, the state legislature, not the Hillsborough Commission, has the final say on how and when the half billion dollars is spent.
“I believe we should try to work together to offer the legislature a solution to this problem,” Overman said. “I’m not looking for a fight. I’m looking for an opportunity to find a solution.”
As the legislature figures out how to spend the money raised in the 2018 referendum, Overman said she hopes 2022 voters will see value in continuing to fund Hillsborough’s growing transportation needs.
“This investment will actually pay great dividends to the people who live here and the businesses that thrive here,” Overman said. “We have the opportunity to create economic mobility by investing in this way and supporting and helping family budgets by investing in the infrastructure they need to be able to move and function in Hillsborough County.”