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Fate Of Hillsborough Transportation Tax In Judge's Hands

A Hillsborough County bus

Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Rex Barbas said Friday he will issue a ruling in about two weeks on whether the county's voter-approved transportation tax will stand.

Fifty-seven percent of voters approved the penny sales tax in November 2018. It would pay for transit and transportation improvements in the cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace, and Plant City, as well as unincorporated parts of Hillsborough. 

County Commissioner Stacy White, a Republican, sued to stop the tax after it passed. An oversight committee would help choose which projects receive funding. White and his attorneys argued that only the county commission may make decisions about how revenue is spent. 

White first filed suit in his role as a commissioner. A court ruled he could not do that, but could continue the litigation in his role as a county citizen. Judge Barbas heard a full day of testimony in early May. On Friday, Barbas heard from lawyers for HART, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (which supports the tax) and All for Transportation (which campaigned for the tax ballot measure). 

In hours of testimony, the attorneys delved into the weeds of tax law, county charters, and the language of ballot referendums. Counsel for White argued the tax unfairly limits the power of county commissions.

Lawyers for tax supporters cited other ballot measures that placed limits on commissioners, as well as a 1995 referendum on using sales tax money to build a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

In that case, a Tampa resident sued because the tax proceeds would be used to issue bonds for the projects. After a series of appeals, the Florida Supreme Court ruled the county could use tax money for bond issuance. 

Regardless of Judge Barbas' decision, an appeal in the case is likely.

Bradley George was a Morning Edition host and reporter at WUSF until March 2022.