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Transit tax vote rejected in Florida County

For the second time in as many years, a Florida county’s lawsuit for additional transportation funding has been thwarted.

A Florida judge has struck down the inclusion of a transportation referendum in next month’s poll in Hillsborough County.

Voters in the county that includes the city of Tampa are set to decide Nov. 8 whether to raise the local sales tax by a penny from 7.5% to 8.5% for transportation purposes.

Karen Jaroch, a Tampa resident and coordinator of a conservative advocacy group, filed a lawsuit to block the vote.

The legal challenge said the referendum did 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 surcharge,” the suit said.

A circuit court judge sided with Jaroch’s motion.

However, the issue may not be resolved. Lawyers may decide to challenge the decision to keep the question on the ballot.

It is estimated that the 30-year tax will bring in $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 voters approve the measure, around half – 45% – of the revenue would go to the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.

The county and three cities would receive 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 second time doesn’t seem to be the charm

The apparent legal defeat is not the first time a transport tax issue has been derailed by the courts.

In November 2018, Hillsborough County voters approved a question to raise the local sales tax by 1%. 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 adoption of the referendum, 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 ruled the tax unconstitutional. LL

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