In a 4-1 decision, the Florida Supreme Court today threw out the Hillsborough sales tax hike for transit approved by voters in 2018 . The 1% sales tax was projected to bring in $16 billion over 30 years.
The court found that the promoters of the tax, Jeff Vinik-funded All For Transportation (AFT), misled the voters by making promises they could not keep. “The voters supported taxing with controls on spending the proceeds of the tax. They should not be saddled with the taxing without having the benefit of the controls,” the court wrote.
Florida Statute 212.055(1)(d) requires that the money be spent in the way “the county commission deems appropriate,” not in the way promoters of the tax deem appropriate. Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White filed a lawsuit shortly after the tax hike passed seeking to have the tax thrown out. In legal circles, White’s lawsuit has become known as the “deems appropriate” lawsuit due to the above statutory language.
Lead counsel for the plaintiff, Chris Alternbernd, declined to comment on the ruling.
The tax was voided for the very reasons The Tampa Bay Guardian raised in an article on July 7, 2018. We did so five months before election day. AFT did not respond to our questions at that time about the legal issue at hand, nor did they remove the measure from the ballot once the problem had been pointed out to them.
AFT has consistently refused to respond to questions from The Guardian for two years. Instead, AFT has chosen to propagandize a “will of the people” message through the Tampa Bay Times and the Tampa Bay Business Journal. However, an electorate provided with deceptive ballot language is not one where the “will of the people” can be discerned.
One month after the measure passed, AFT falsely claimed to have obtained a legal opinion on the legality of its measure before putting it on the ballot. In that same month, Hillsborough County Commissioner Kimberly Overman told the Tampa Bay Times that “the referendum language was vetted closely.”
However, a public records request to Overman for any records to support her “vetted closely” claim turned up no records. In other words, Overman had no evidence to back up her claim and thus made no effort to independently verify the AFT claim she parroted.
A year after the tax passed, AFT President Tyler Hudson claimed that voters actually only wanted “some modicum of oversight” for the $16 billion sales tax hike. The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of “modicum” is “a small portion : a limited quantity.” Hudson made his claim only after a circuit court judge struck down the ability of an independent oversight committee (IOC) to approve or disapprove of projects.
The IOC was created by the tax hike ballot language to provide taxpayer controls on spending. By May of last year, the IOC developed a media plan to “shape what the public thinks.”
Today’s voiding of the transit tax hike was widely expected, even by its supporters. In April of 2020, they twice sought to have the Hillsborough county commission place a sales tax hike for transit back on the ballot this fall, as a back-up plan if the Florida Supreme Court threw out the tax, as it now has done.
In close 4-3 votes, the Hillsborough county commission twice refused to place the tax hike on the ballot, which is what the Vinik-funded tax hike proponents asked it to do.
“We were writing a charter amendment over drinks,” said Christina Barker, Vice President of Community Partnerships and Policy at the Vinik Family Office. Barker is also a self-described “AFT organizer.”
Today’s Florida Supreme Court decision should be a sobering reminder for AFT’s transit ideologues that $16 billion tax hikes should not be crafted over “drinks” because alcohol does not improve judgment. Not even when writing a legal document.
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