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Tampa Voters Supported Transit Measure — But Sore Losers Want to Overturn it

If you can't win at the ballot box, try again in court.

That seems to be the strategy for opponents of Hillsborough County, Florida's transportation levy, which passed overwhelmingly just a few weeks ago.

With the support of a Koch-brothers-backed conservative group, County Commissioner Stacy White sued on Tuesday to overturn or suspend the measure, which is expected to generate $8 billion over the next two decades to expand transit and make other transportation improvements in greater Tampa.

Photo: Stacy White
Photo: Stacy White

White's claim is at least on its face based on procedural objections. In the 28-page motion [PDF], White complains he "is in doubt about his duties and obligations as a county commissioner" because he believes certain parts of the newly passed law conflicts with some other state laws. Notably he objects to a 13-member commission that would help dole out the money. The commission is designed to remove "pet projects" and political favoritism from the project selection process.

White — who opposed the tax measure during the campaign — is taking heat for attempting to subvert the will of voters. His own district voted in favor of the measure.

“[The suit] is a waste of taxpayers’ money, and that’s a shame," County Commissioner Kimberly Overman told the Tampa Bay Times.

Nonetheless, White's lawsuit was cheered by Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group funded by the fossil fuel billionaire Koch Brothers, the same group that has been attacking transit projects in Nashville, Phoenix and other cities.

The Florida chapter of the group applauded White for "challenging a surtax increase that voters recently had an opportunity to review." The group denied any involvement in the lawsuit.

White told the Tampa Bay Times he would pay for the lawsuit with his own money. White's office said it would be represented pro bono by former Appellate Court Judge Chris Altenbernd, who did not return our call.

UPDATE: Altenbernd told Streetsblog he took on the case out of a genuine concern about the issue.

”I probably could have gotten money from an outside group,” he said. “But I didn’t want some distraction about him being a pawn for an outside group.”

Regardless, the lawsuit will still cost the public, as Hillsborough County will now have to pay to defend a measure voters approved just a short time ago — and whose legality White had not previously questioned.

Supporters, who campaigned under the name All for Transportation, say the measure will save 800 lives, resurface 10,000 miles of roads, add 600 miles of new safer streetlights, build 500 miles of new sidewalks and provide $126 millions or expanded bus service.

"We’re confident the courts are going to side with the people who vote for it in overwhelming numbers in November,"said Tyler Hudson, part of the grassroots group that gathered 70,000 signatures to place the ballot on the measure and campaigned for its passage, told Streetsblog.

The one-cent sales tax — 45 percent of which is to expand bus service and build a fixed route transit line — "won basically everywhere," Hudson said. "The story is about the broad and deep frustration in Hillsborough county with transportation.

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