Hillsborough Transit Tax Shakier Than Ever




By Sharon Calvert, from Eye on Tampa Bay

As we posted previously, Judge Rex Barbas gutted the illegal All for Transportation (AFT) tax hike charter amendment, tossing all of AFT’s illegal spending appropriations,  prohibitions on funding new roads and other regulations it tried to force Hillsborough County taxpayers.

In addition, according to a local article, Commissioner Stacy White filed a motion to remove the sentence that required the AFT sales tax to be distributed to the County and municipalities based on their population.

“…any such allocation should be based on the actual transportation needs of the municipality, not on arbitrary, fixed percentages that were created to serve an entirely different tax with entirely different goals.”

White’s motion also requests a final judgement be made which then enables an appeal to either the Supreme Court or the Second District Court of Appeals.

 The Barbas ruling leaves standing only the tax itself and a neutered advisory committee.

Barbas cites precedence and state statute guidance that reflects a bias that rulings have to favor the voter.

Barbas ruled that the ballot summary language satisfactorily informed the voter about the tax – that it was a 30-year, one-cent sales surtax to fund transportation and road improvements in Hillsborough County.

Interestingly, a “one cent” sales surtax does not exist in state statute. In Section 1(b) of Florida Statute 212.055 that governs the transportation sales surtax, the sales tax is referred to as a percentage rate not a dollar figure:

The rate shall be up to 1 percent.

The ballot summary language stated the AFT tax is to fund road improvements which the vast majority of people believed would include road widening and new road capacity.  AFT listed “improve roads”  as its top priority of transportation improvements to be funded by the AFT tax. But AFT explicitly excluded funding new road capacity in its tax hike charter amendment.

Thankfully, Barbas threw out that exclusion confirming that the AFT tax was not just a tax – it was a tax with a particular intent.

And Barbas took away that intent.

Barbas cites precedence about when a charter amendment is “invalid”:

Barbas found many parts of the AFT charter amendment invalid and inconsistent with general law.

But then he starts the slicing and dicing.

Section 9.05 of the Hillsborough County Charter has a comprehensive severability clause:

It is the intent of the electorate in adopting this Charter that if any section, subsection, sentence, clause, term or word of this Charter is held invalid, the remainder of the Charter shall not be affected.

The AFT tax instead included a very narrow severability clause in Section 11.11 (2) of their charter amendment.

                       Severability clause in AFT charter amendment

AFT’s severability clause is so narrow that it only addresses the expenditure categories. It also states if the expenditure categories are not lawful then the funds shall be expended on any project to improve “public transportation” permitted by FS 212.055 AND the charter amendment.

Nowhere in FS 212.055 is the terminology “public transportation” used or mentioned.

The “public transportation” terminology in AFT’s charter amendment appears to only relate to transit. That makes sense since Webster’s dictionary defines public transportation as “a system of trains, buses, etc., that is paid for or run by the government”.

AFT’s severability clause is not comprehensive. It does NOT include language stating that if any section, paragraph, sentence, clause, phrase, or word of the charter amendment is for any reason held by a Court of competent jurisdiction to be unconstitutional, inoperative or void, the remainder of the amendment should still apply.

Barbas cites voters had “clear notice” of the severability clause because the full text of the amendment was available throughout the county, there was substantial news coverage and there was political advertising for and against the tax hike prior to the election.

What voter understood AFT’s severability clause?

In Barbas’ mind, the average voter that is clueless regarding the Bill of Rights is sophisticated enough to discern the AFT bait-and-switch rhetoric.

AFT’s severability clause does not agree with or appear to legally match the comprehensive severability clause in the county charter itself.

And the severability clause of the AFT tax does not appear to agree with what Barbas has now struck out of the charter amendment.

Citing news coverage about the AFT tax hike is laughable. The local media was extremely one-sided in their reporting about the AFT tax.

As posted in October last year, the Tampa Bay Times All In for All For Transportation confirms the one-sided reporting about the AFT tax. A Google search of the word “severability” resulted in ZERO hits associated with the AFT tax.

The Times or any other local media never reported anything about “severability” because they never reported about any of the potential legal issues raised last year with the AFT tax.

Commissioner White’s Amended Complaint states the invalid portions of the AFT charter amendment cannot be severed from the entirety of the charter amendment under AFT’s “narrow severability clause [in Section 11.11(2)], or under the constitutional doctrine of severability” making the entire charter amendment unconstitutional, invalid and unenforceable”.

How did AFT’s tax hike charter amendment survive the severability analysis?

With defects still swirling, How has the AFT tax weathered the legal storm?

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