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Florida Supreme Court should uphold Hillsborough transportation sales tax

The 13th Circuit Court and the Hillsborough County Commission have already resolved this issue. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/W. SLUPECKI

In November 2018, Hillsborough County voters approved a referendum creating a one-cent sales tax to pay for improvements in road maintenance, mass transit and pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure. The initiative, which received 57 percent of the vote, was authored and championed by All for Transportation (AFT), a citizen group backed by community advocates and business leaders.

Even as the sales tax is being collected, however, none of the revenue has been spent, entirely because of a frivolous lawsuit from Republican officials.

AFT’s landslide victory reflected years of dissatisfaction with transportation in the Tampa Bay area. Stifling traffic congestion is a fact of everyday life. Meager funding for mass transit makes bus routes slow and unreliable. Insufficient infrastructure and poorly designed intersections cause deadly crashes that kill pedestrians and bicyclists.

Funds from the one-cent sales tax would make substantial headway on each of these issues, helping USF students along the way. Underfunding, for instance, forced Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) to cut routes running through the USF campus during a restructuring in 2017. New money could see those routes brought back.

Instead, every cent of that money is frozen. Following AFT’s approval, Republican Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White  filed suit against the county, claiming that the referendum violated the Florida Constitution. In the meantime, the county has no access to the sales tax proceeds.

Initially, White had a reasonable case. The AFT initiative included a specific plan for spending the sales tax revenue—a strategy that helped communicate proposed improvements with voters but usurped the constitutional spending authority of the County Commission.

As a result, a judge on the 13th Judicial Circuit struck down the spending plan but upheld the tax. For their part, the Hillsborough County Commission voted to stick to the AFT spending plan, honoring the will of the voters. For all intents and purposes, these moves were common sense solutions, resolving legal issues without usurping democracy.

Now, both White and the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature are appealing the decision to the Florida Supreme Court, using a game of semantics to demand an all-or-nothing position. If the spending plan is repealed, they argue, the rest of the initiative should be overturned, too. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on the issue next Wednesday.

This litigation has little to do with the Florida Constitution and everything to do with politics. White and Republican state legislators like Sen. Tom Lee (R-Thonotosassa) campaigned against AFT in the 2018 election, and both White and Lee have expressed an ideological commitment against tax increases and public transportation.

By challenging the sales tax in court, these officials want to overturn a popular transportation agenda for their own political interests.

The Circuit Court and the Hillsborough County Commission have already resolved this issue. The Florida Supreme Court should reject petty partisanship by siding with Hillsborough voters and affirming the previous ruling.

Nathaniel Sweet is a senior studying political science.