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DeSantis says Hillsborough transportation funds must be returned to taxpayers

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Drivers hoping for relief on Hillsborough County roads might not get it any time soon — more than half a billion dollars in sales tax money collected by a voter-approved transportation tax will be returned to taxpayers, according to the governor's proposed budget.

The money was held in escrow since a judge ruled the sales tax approved by voters in 2018 was null and void after being challenged by then-County Commissioner Stacy White.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has called for more than half a billion dollars in sales tax money to be returned to taxpayers in Hillsborough County.

He also made sure it doesn't include any funding for mass transit.

The governor's proposed budget for fiscal 2023-2024 outlines that Hillsborough County and its three incorporated cities must return the money to taxpayers.

That's the amount of sales tax that was collected after voters approved a transportation tax in 2018, before a judge voided it in 2021 after a challenge by then-County Commissioner Stacy White.

DeSantis did not specify how much of the money could pay for road-related projects and how much would be refunded to taxpayers. That is expected to come soon from the legislature and governor's office. The budget letter also did not spell out how county residents could apply for refunds.

The funds that are not claimed can used for road-related projects — but not mass transit, the governor's budget says.

The proposed budget states: “A list of transportation infrastructure projects may only include the construction of roads, bridges, road resurfacing, and associated infrastructure development and related planning and development costs. The department may not use funds for any public transit programs or fixed capital outlay project related to a public transit system.”

City of Tampa documents state they would receive about $124 million, based on splitting the money by population. And since mass transit is concentrated in the city, it would be impacted the most by the governor's ban on using it for buses or rail. That includes a projected $66 million that the city wanted to use to expand the downtown streetcar.

Tampa officials have presented a list of road projects using all their money to the city council.

Last year, Hillsborough voters rejected another effortto levy a one percent sales tax to fix the county's transportation woes.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.