Yesterday, a lawsuit was filed in Hillsborough County court that seeks to stop the public from voting on a tax that could help fund local public transportation.
The county aims to ask voters in November if they approve a 1% sales tax over the next 30 years to help fund transit and road improvements, which leaders say are much needed in the county. But the lawsuit aims to stop the ballot initiative in its tracks.
Karen Jaroch, who filed the lawsuit, is the Gulf States Regional Director of Heritage Action for America, a conservative activist group. In her injunction lawsuit, Jaroch honed in on the language of the ballot presented by the county.
In her suit, Jaroch wrote that, “the County’s ballot title and ballot summary are facially defective.”
Jaroch claimed that the ballot improperly induces voters to cast ballots in favor of the surtax by promising residents of select areas of Hillsborough County that they will receive specific transportation improvements. She said that this is misleading, because those are “promises the county cannot expect to keep.”
Jaroch also claims that the ballot fails to provide voters with a specific, narrow question to vote on, which she alleges could violate state law.
The actual language of the 2022 ballot crafted by the county says:
“Should transportation improvements be funded throughout Hillsborough County, including Tampa, Plant City, Temple Terrace, Brandon, Riverview, Carrollwood, and Town ‘n’ Country, including projects that: Build and widen roads, Fix roads and bridges, Expand public transit options, Fix potholes, Enhance bus services, Improve intersections, Make walking and biking safer, By levying a one percent sales surtax for 30 years and funds deposited in an audited trust fund with citizen oversight.”
Hillsborough County Commissioner Kimberly Overman told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay that the need for public transportation is urgent, which is why the county commission seeks to let the voters decide on it.
“Everything that I have heard from our residents is that we need to invest in public transportation,” Overman told CL. She added that the county commission took care to take their time crafting the ballot language to comply with state laws.
Jaroch argued in the lawsuit that the ballot is not presented in “clear and unambiguous language” and claimed that “The County is fully aware of these problems with its ballot title and ballot summary.”
She is requesting that the ballot be declared “legally defective” and removed from the ballot in November.
Tyler Hudson, co-chair of All For Transportation, a grassroots group that works to address Hillsborough County's public transit crisis, said that the lawsuit aims to keep voters from deciding on transportation.
“This is a frivolous ploy to deny voters the chance to fix Hillsborough County’s transportation crisis," Hudson said. "A small group of obstructions have already delayed by 4 years much needed road, safety and transit projects which has had catastrophic consequences for the community. Lawsuits don’t fill potholes, and voters deserve the opportunity to decide their transportation future at the ballot box.”
"Lawsuits don’t fill potholes, and voters deserve the opportunity to decide their transportation future at the ballot box.”
This isn’t the first legal struggle over the county’s transportation tax.
In 2018, voters approved the tax at the ballot box with nearly 60% of the vote, and the county began collecting. But after the people spoke, a lawsuit was filed by County Commissioner Stacy White that eventually reached the Florida Supreme Court.
In 2021, the court shot down the tax, ruling that restricting the revenue to be spent on transportation was unconstitutional. But earlier this year, money from the tax was approved to be spent on county roads.
Recently the county has seen public transit issues, especially within the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) organization, which says it needs more funds to retain employees who CL found were leaving at a rapid rate in March.