HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — Hillsborough County leaders are now working to put a new penny sales tax on the ballot in 2022 to pay for much-needed transportation projects across the Tampa Bay area. It would replace the All For Transportation tax, struck down by the Florida Supreme County earlier this year.
If approved by voters, the new surtax would pay for projects like new roads, sidewalks, crosswalks, bike lanes and more across Hillsborough County.
At their meeting on Wednesday, Hillsborough County commissioners discussed a timeline for the ballot initiative, worked out with the county attorney.
Hillsborough County commissioners plan to spend several months toward the end of summer and into the fall at town hall meetings, explaining to residents the key differences between the "All For Transportation" tax, and the newly proposed penny tax.
“I think the most important thing is that we get this right,” said Hillsborough County Commissioner Harry Cohen during Wednesday's meeting
The commission is planning to hold at least four town hall meetings, in an effort to educate the public on the newly proposed tax and gather feedback to see if this is actually what citizens want.
If so, the county commission plans to put the referendum on the ballot themselves; a key difference from the last penny tax, which was put on the ballot by "All For Transportation," a community-led effort which left funding allocation up to an independent oversight committee, not commissioners, which the Florida Supreme Court ultimately decided violated state law.
“It was unlawful. It was inconsistent with Florida law, and it was unconstitutional,” said Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White.
Commissioner White was opposed to the "All For Transportation" tax from the beginning. He's the one who filed the original lawsuit, which ended up getting the tax struck down.
But Commissioner White says he's in favor this time around of gathering community feedback to see if this is what citizens want.
“To make sure that citizens understand that a new referendum is being contemplated, and to the extent that there’s any spending plan that might go along with it, that it’s a spending plan that the community has a chance to look at,” said Commissioner White.
Commissioner White also does not want to see a long-term spending plan with the proposed referendum.
“I for one would not want to see a 30-year spending plan like the “All For Transportation” plan called for. I mean, just think of how long 30 years is, and how much things can change over a 30 year period. If there’s gonna be a referendum that passes and a spending plan along with it, I think that the county commission should probably just take things in 5 or 10-year increments,” he said.
But the proposal of a new penny tax is already garnering opposition. The Tampa Bay Young Republicans call it "tone deaf," especially coming out of a pandemic.
“We had it the last few years, we had one of the highest taxes in the state of Florida. People are hurting, and this is absolutely not the time to come in and try and use our money for an infrastructure project that should be funded by the infrastructure bill that is coming at a national level,” said Jake Hoffman, President of Tampa Bay Young Republicans.
They want the money to come from elsewhere, and Commissioner White doesn't dispute that, but he says that's the reason commissioners need to hear from the community.
“I certainly think that there is room for the county to tighten its belt and find funding from other sources; there are others that’ll tell you that we have to have the tax, but that’s why I encourage everyone that’s watching this segment to engage in these town hall meetings," said Commissioner White.
Hillsborough County commissioners plan to schedule their first town hall meeting sometime in August, and the other three will quickly follow.
County leaders plan to work out how the surtax money would be distributed, if approved by voters, by December 2021.
By August 23, 2022, commissioners would provide the ballot question to the office of the Supervisor of Elections.
Voters would then cast a ballot either for or against the new surtax on election day, which is on November 8, 2022. If passed, the new transportation tax would take effect on January 1, 2023.
This ballot initiative is to replace the All For Transportation surtax, which the Florida Supreme Court deemed unconstitutional earlier this year.
All for Transportation is the common term for the voter-approved sales tax referendum funding transportation. It is a one-cent sales tax that was passed in November 2018 and started being collected in 2019.
The original complaint, initiated by Commissioner Stacy White, said Hillsborough County Commissioners should have control over how the money was spent on transportation projects, not an outside advisory committee. White claimed the surtax was legally deficient.
A Hillsborough County judge upheld the tax in June 2019. Appeals were filed shortly after, which is why it went to the Florida Supreme Court.
The language of the new tax on the ballot would likely be revised to reflect changes to hold up in court.
Upwards of half a billion dollars have been collected from the AFT one-cent sales tax since January 2019. Right now, it cannot be dispersed and it's still unclear what will happen to that money.