Hillsborough County commissioners are wise to plan a discussion for Wednesday on whether to create a backup plan in case the Florida Supreme Court strikes down the one-cent transportation tax that county voters approved in 2018. They should not backtrack. While commission chairman Les Miller deserves credit for looking ahead and has good intentions for proposing a half-cent transportation tax for the November ballot, voters clearly wanted a full penny tax and commissioners should respect their intentions.
Miller and Commissioner Kimberly Overman are acting responsibly by scheduling this discussion. The commission has a narrow window to put a tax on the November ballot. Given the pointed questions by several Supreme Court justices during oral arguments this month regarding a challenge to the existing one-cent tax, commissioners need to act quickly in case the court overturns the will of the voters.
Miller, though, has proposed a half-cent levy. He would augment that revenue with an additional 5-cent gas tax, and he wants the commission to dedicate a portion of the half-cent Community Investment Tax to mass transit and other transportation projects if and when that tax is reauthorized, which must happen by 2026. While Miller acknowledged Hillsborough’s transportation needs are great, he questioned whether it would be possible to sell a full penny in such a short period of time. He also said putting the same tax package to the voters that was challenged in court would create “confusion.” A half-penny tax, Miller said, “has a greater chance of gaining widespread voter support.”
The commission should stick with a full penny. That’s what voters endorsed when they overwhelmingly passed the tax in 2018. That campaign, which highlighted the county’s transportation problems, is still fresh and firmly in mind. Even a full penny sales tax, which would generate about $9 billion over 30 years, falls short of meeting Hillsborough’s $12 billion in unmet transportation needs. A half-penny would inevitably force a stark choice between funding mass transit or road improvements. The key take-away from 2018 is that voters want a balanced proposal that benefits city and suburban residents alike.
There’s also no evidence voters want a half-penny. The referendum passed in 2018 because voters saw the necessary resources would be raised. Of the two local tax initiatives on the Hillsborough ballot that year, the full penny for transportation drew slightly more votes (57 percent) than the half-penny for school improvements (56 percent). And activists and the business community are not going to get excited about a half measure that falls so short of the goal of only two years ago. All for Transportation, the citizens’ group that led the 2018 tax initiative, already opposes the half-cent plan. While Miller has reasonable suggestions about raising the gas tax and reallocating the investment tax, tying together three separate taxes for transportation now would sow more confusion.
Miller is looking for a backup plan with the greatest chance of success. He and Overman should be applauded for working to ensure that a court decision that ignores the intent of the voters does not wreak havoc on this community. But the voters spoke loudly in 2018 from every corner of the county. The commission should stick with a full penny sales tax and if the need arises work vigorously to make another convincing case this November.
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