Hillsborough’s 1 percent transportation and transit sales tax will stay in place, Circuit Judge Rex Barbas ruled Monday.
“It is evident that the voters of Hillsborough County desire to improve transportation,” Barbas wrote in a 16-page partial summary judgment upholding the voter-approved tax, with some changes. (A summary judgment allows a party to win a case without a trial.)
The decision finds the ballot measure met constitutional requirements for informing voters of ballot intent and cannot be stricken down in its entirety.
“When determining the adequacy of a proposed amendment, the Court asks two questions: ‘whether the ballot title and summary fairly inform the voter of the chief purpose of the amendment,’ and, ‘whether the language of the title and summary, as written, misleads the Public,’ ” Barbas’ judgment reads.
The ruling notes that some of the ballot language was either “omitted or could have been better explained.” However, it also notes that does not meet the standards in court precedent to invalidate the amendment.
While the decision is an overall win for All For Transportation and the voters who approved it, there were some portions of the amendment stricken because of their unconstitutionality.
The court struck from the charter amendment references to exact percentages allocated to the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority and the three cities within Hillsborough County. It also strikes specific references to how much money can be spent on certain types of projects like roads or transit.
It also restricts authority under the prescribed Independent Oversight Committee. The ruling finds that the committee may still review and evaluate plans, but allowing the authority to strike down spending plans usurps the Hillsborough County Commission’s authority to self-determine how to use taxpayer funds.
“The Legislature has mandated that [the Board of County Commissioners] is solely responsible for determining which uses to apply the proceeds to and how much to allocate to each use,” the ruling said.
Under the ruling, the Independent Oversight Committee may not override elected bodies’ spending plans.
However, the Hillsborough County Commission can reinstate the court-stricken provision through County ordinance or by upholding provisions within the already approved interlocal agreement implementing provisions of the new charter amendment.
“The Hillsborough County Commission has the power to put back what the court has taken away and so we will ask the board at its next meeting to do just that, to follow the wishes of the more than 282,000 residents who voted for the plan exactly as described in the Charter amendment that they approved to be spent,” said AFT Chair Tyler Hudson after today’s ruling.
The issue came up when Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White filed a lawsuit challenging the All For Transportation tax arguing it conflicted with state law by usurping county spending authority and that the ballot measure was unconstitutional.
White did not immediately respond for comment. The anti-tax group Americans For Prosperity responded to the judge’s ruling decrying it as upholding a “massive tax increase.”
“Commissioner Stacy White took on the special interests and fought for best interests of taxpayers in filling the lawsuit. We applaud him for his commitment to protecting taxpayers,” the group wrote in a statement. “Local officials need to do a better job of being good stewards of public dollars to avoid having to push for misguided ballot gimmicks that take more from the pockets of hardworking taxpayers. While the ruling did find some of the ballot language was either ‘omitted or could have been better explained’, we respect the legal process involved.”
Both White and All For Transportation could appeal the court’s ruling.
“All for Transportation set out nearly a year ago to change the course of this community, to reverse a generation of neglect for our transportation system. With this challenge behind us, we implore our local leaders to turn to the work of implementing transportation solutions that will reduce congestion, make our roads safer for everyone, and expand transit options,” Hudson said.
The transportation tax earned nearly 60 percent of the vote last November. It received majority support in all three cities within Hillsborough County as well as in unincorporated parts of the county and in every single County Commission district.