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Counties Beware: Florida Supreme Court Strikes Down Charter Amendment Implementing Transportation Tax

Albert E. Dotson, Jr.

In a case that should serve as a warning to all Florida counties, the Florida Supreme Court recently struck down a voter-approved Hillsborough County charter amendment that created a 30-year, one-percent sales tax that could only be used to fund public transportation. The amendment also established an oversight committee responsible for ensuring that the tax proceeds were used for public transit. Challenging the amendment, a Hillsborough County Commissioner and resident argued that the oversight committee impermissibly usurped the powers granted to the County Commission pursuant to Florida law. The Supreme Court ultimately reversed the trial court’s ruling and held that the one-percent tax could not be severed from the provision implementing an oversight board and that the entire amendment was unconstitutional, reasoning that the court could not assume that the voters would have approved the tax without the requisite controls.

Many counties, including Miami-Dade County, have utilized creative taxing mechanisms in order to fund much-needed public transportation. Miami-Dade County’s transportation surtax, known as the half-penny tax, was approved by voters in 2002 and generates millions of dollars a year, however, it has come under scrutiny for not funding the transit projects it was collected to fund. The Florida Supreme Court has made clear, however, that vesting power in an oversight board to maintain and control the public purpose of such funds that is not the County Commission could render such a tax unconstitutional. Currently, the Citizen’s Independent Transportation Trust is responsible for oversight of Miami-Dade County’s transportation surtax, but the Miami-Dade County Commission has ultimate control as it may accept or reject any recommendations from that body. Such a structure would seem to pass constitutional muster, but it is clear counties must take heed of this recent development, as there are clear parameters on their ability to utilize this important funding mechanism for public transportation.

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