Florida Supreme Court to settle Tampa-area transportation tax challenge

September 16, 2019

Keith Goble


Voters in a Florida county that includes the city of Tampa must wait a little longer for the outcome on a transportation tax they approved nearly one year ago.

In fall 2018, voters in Hillsborough County approved a question to raise the local sales tax by one cent for better roads and bridges, and other improvements. Passage of the question also put an independent oversight board in charge of the money.

Referendum 2 in Hillsborough County

Referendum 2 on the November 2018 ballot was approved 57% to 43% by Hillsborough County voters. Passage was billed to implement a transportation plan to add technologies that include smart, or timed, traffic lights and road sensors. The changes are billed to improve traffic flow.

The tax increase would be used to reduce congestion and improve safety by raising the local sales tax to 8% from 7%. The tax increase is estimated to raise $552 million each of the first two years. Over the course of the next three decades it is estimated to raise $276 million annually.

About 55% of new revenue would applied for road work. The remaining funds would be used to pay for new and enhanced transit options.

Funds could not be used for expansion of right of way or width on the interstate highway system.

Legal challenge

In the weeks following the public approval multiple legal challenges were waged. Critics, including Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White, argued the tax was unconstitutional and wrestled power from the County Commission.

A circuit judge upheld the law, but not without invalidating parts of it. Specifically, Circuit Judge Rex Martin Barbas ruled against certain spending restrictions.

The judge also ruled against giving veto power over spending to an independent oversight board.

Barbas explained his reasoning for upholding the law at the time.

“It is evident that the voters of Hillsborough County desire to improve transportation needs,” he wrote in his ruling. “It is further obvious to this court that the electorate made their desires clear.”

Florida Supreme Court

The decision to strike parts of the law while upholding the tax is under appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.

The Florida House and Senate have weighed in on the matter to the state’s highest court. Legislators are asking the court to reverse the lower court ruling and eliminate the tax, as well as the charter amendment to authorize the tax.

Officials argue the charter amendment was “deceptive” to voters.