The legal team representing All For Transportation in its ongoing legal battle against two complainants filed its response Thursday to an appeal seeking to overturn the 1% sales tax Hillsborough voters approved last year.
In their “answer brief,” the group makes two main arguments — that the voter-approved sales tax is constitutionally valid even if portions of it are stricken down and that the entire amendment is constitutional.
At the center of the issue is Article 11 in the charter amendment. Hillsborough Judge Rex Barbas struck down several provisions of the tax concerning how revenue is allocated. His ruling was part of two separate lawsuits challenging the tax — one filed by Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White and another by Hillsborough resident Bob Emerson.
The two are appealing the decision to the Florida Supreme Court and are now claiming the tax should be struck down because, without the portions of article 11 struck down by Barbas, the amendment is no longer what voters approved.
But the All For Transportation team argues voter intent was simply to approve a 30-year tax to fund transportation improvements in Hillsborough County — an argument on which Barbas agreed.
“This court should affirm the final orders because even with the invalid portions of Article 11 severed, a complete charter amendment remains that fulfills its chief purpose,” the argument reads.
It notes that the portions of Article 11 found valid in the original ruling fulfill voters’ intent to fund transportation improvements in Hillsborough County. In fact, Barbas’ decision left intact 85 percent of the original charter.
Challengers had initially argued the ballot language was misleading.
The trial judge in the original ruling rejected the notion, noting that the initiative has “a logical and natural oneness of purpose” to “enact a thirty-year, one-cent sales surtax to fund transportation improvements throughout Hillsborough County.”
Emerson did not challenge the ballot summary, and White does not challenge it in the appeal.
The Barbas ruling also found that the portions of the charter amendment deemed unconstitutional could be severed because “severability was anticipated by voters.”
“The appellants’ only argument here is that, rather than sever those portions of Article 11 that it found invalid, the trial court should have stricken the entire amendment,” the argument reads. “If the court does conclude that portions of Article 11 are invalid, the trial court correctly upheld the remainder of Article 11.”
The appeal response claims that to invalidate all of Article 11, and thereby repeal the tax, “there must be an express, irreconcilable conflict with general law.” The stricken portions would have to mean that, without them, “the amendment’s chief purpose cannot be accomplished.”
That’s not the case, the All For Transportation lawyers argue.
They argue voter intent was abundantly clear in the ballot summary, ballot language and full charter amendment and clearly state the intent was to enact a 30-year sales tax to fund transportation improvements in Hillsborough County.
“Those texts could not be clearer,” the argument reads. “The portions of the amendment the trial court left standing more than fulfill that purpose.”
Still, the argument goes on to claim the appellate court “need not reach severability at all” and that the tax should be upheld in its entirety. That’s because there are 11 references throughout the charter amendment providing relief if there is a conflict between the charter and superseding state laws.
Also, concerns present when the lawsuits were first filed about the charter amendment potentially usurping power from the County Commission no longer exist. Commissioners voted, with White as the only no-vote, to incorporate the stricken parts of Article 11 into county ordinance, which supersedes the charter amendment. Further, If a future board were to approve different allocations than those approved this year, that too would override the charter.
“We are confident that the All for Transportation plan will stand as a true and lawful example of democracy in action,” said All For Transportation Chair Tyler Hudson. “We should recognize Stacy White’s lawsuit for what it is — a desperate act of obstruction and delay. Like the voters of Hillsborough County, the law remains on our side.”