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Florida Governor Pursues Solution to County’s Transportation Tax Uncertainty

Florida’s governor will ask state lawmakers next year to allot more than half a billion dollars in sales tax revenue for transportation work in the state’s fourth-largest county.

In his upcoming budget proposal, Gov. Ron DeSantis wants the Florida Department of Transportation to determine how to spend money from a defunct transportation sales tax that was collected in Hillsborough County. One year ago, the Florida Supreme Court ruled the tax collection was illegal.

2018 vote

In November 2018, voters in the county that includes the city of Tampa approved a question to raise the local sales tax by 1%. About 55% of new revenue was set to be applied for road work. The remaining funds were designated to pay for new and enhanced transit options. Shortly after passage of the referendum, multiple legal challenges were waged. Critics, including then-Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White, argued the tax was unconstitutional and took power from the County Commission.

The issue ultimately made its way to the Florida Supreme Court, where plaintiffs argued the charter amendment was “deceptive” to voters. Additionally, they said the spending parameters were set by the referendum and not by elected officials. In February 2021, justices ruled the tax unconstitutional. The $570 million collected via the tax from January 2019 to early 2021 remains in escrow until state leaders decide how it can be used.

2022 vote sidelined

One year ago, a question was added to the county’s fall ballot asking voters whether to raise the 7.5% local sales tax to 8.5% for transportation purposes. Karen Jaroch, a Tampa resident who is a coordinator for a conservative advocacy group, filed a lawsuit to block the vote. The legal challenge stated the referendum did not meet Florida’s requirement for a simple and narrow question.

“They incorrectly inform voters that their vote on the referendum, rather than decisions by the Board of County Commissioners, will establish the uses to which surtax proceeds will be put and that those uses will be set in stone for the 30-year life of the proposed surtax,” the suit stated.

A circuit court judge sided with Jaroch’s motion and nullified inclusion of the referendum on the ballot.

Searching for a solution

DeSantis previously wanted to see as much of the money refunded as possible. Any unclaimed funds would be routed toward road work. State lawmakers, however, were unable to reach agreement during the 2023 regular session on how to resolve the issue.

The governor’s latest pursuit does not include any refunds. Instead, all the money would be transferred from the Department of Revenue to the state’s Transportation Trust Fund. The Florida DOT would take the lead on finalizing a list of projects in the county. The agency would have until September 2024 to complete the task.

“As Florida’s population continues to grow, it is crucial that we have a robust transportation network to support our state,” Florida DOT Secretary Jared W. Perdue said in prepared remarks. “This budget proposal reaffirms the Department’s commitment to addressing congestion relief, resiliency, improving safety on our roadways and strengthening Florida’s supply chain.”

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said that any money made available to her city would be used for maintenance and repairs to roads and bridges. LL

Source: Landline Media