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Hillsborough Transportation Tax Is Unconstitutional, Florida Supreme Court Rules To Stacy White's 'Delight'

Signs for northbound I-275 and eastbound I-4
The Florida Supreme Court struck down Hillsborough County's transportation sales tax on Feb. 25, 2021.

The advocacy group All for Transportation worked to get the amendment on the November 2018 ballot. It passed with 57% of the vote.

After more than a year of legal limbo, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday struck down Hillsborough County's transportation sales tax.

In a 4-1 decision, the court sided with county commissioner Stacy White, who argued that a 2018 charter amendment creating the tax violated the state constitution.

“Despite those who have repeatedly attacked me, I was delighted with this ruling,” White said in a statement on his Facebook page. “It affirms my position that the way this referendum was written was unlawful.”

The 21-page majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Charles Canady, said the violation of state law invalidated the entire ballot measure because the tax increase could not be separated -- or, in legal terms, severed -- from the plan for spending the money.

The advocacy group All for Transportation worked to get the amendment on the November 2018 ballot. It passed with 57% of the vote.

The amendment called for a one-cent tax to fund transportation projects throughout Hillsborough County. It also included a formula for splitting up tax revenue among the county, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, and the cities of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace.

White sued in 2019, arguing that only he and his fellow commissioners can make decisions about how tax money should be spent. In June of that year, Judge Rex Barbas upheld the tax but threw out the amendment’s spending formula, siding with White. Commissioners adopted their own version of the formula the following month, but White warned he would continue his legal fight.

"Until all legal matters are put to rest, I continue to be in a legal posture,” White told the board before the vote. White pressed on, and the Supreme Court heard arguments in February 2020.

Hillsborough County has continued to collect the tax while the legal fight has played out. Now that the tax is struck down, it isn’t clear what will happen to over $400 million sitting in the county's coffers.

Supporters of the 2018 referendum have vowed to push another vote in 2022. Because of the court’s decision, the vote will have to be initiated by the board of commissioners and not the public.

All for Transportation founder Tyler Hudson called the court decision “radical,” but he acknowledged it’s the final say in the matter.

“Now we believe the county commission has a very clear opportunity to take the lead on this. And that's what we're going to encourage them and help them do,” he said at a press conference after the ruling was released.

“HART’s challenge in our mission – funding – does not change,” the county’s transit agency said in a statement. “We continue to do more with less – as one of the most underfunded transit systems per capita in the country.”

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