By Jim Bleyer
Promoting local sales tax increases for transit projects will always be a losing struggle in Florida, a group of transportation strategists agreed this week.
They attributed voter mistrust of government as the insurmountable barrier to referendum-based tax hikes. That unequivocal assessment was expressed at a funding symposium during the 2016 Transportation Summit at St. Pete Beach.
It puts an exclamation point on the word “no,” the message voters in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties have emphatically delivered to their local governments three times in the past six years. The most recent fail occurred in April and June when Hillsborough commissioners voted against even putting a sales tax increase on the ballot after a grass roots uproar.
The fear and misinformation tactics used by proponents, including the far less than unbiased Tampa Bay Times, were contemptible.
It’s bad news for not only the tax-addicted Times but also for the cabal of politicos in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties whose narrow vision cannot see beyond the use of regressive sales taxes to pay off their corporate sponsors. In Pinellas, County Commissioner Ken Welch leads the sales tax charge. In Hillsborough, County Commissioner Ken Hagan and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn are the prime movers.
All know the agony of defeat: Hillsborough voters soundly rejected a mass transit proposal in 2010 that would have boosted the sales tax by 58-42 percent. The Greenlight Pinellas tax increase for transit, promoted by all the usual suspects, got thrashed, 62-38.
The symposium experts said such sales tax increases will forever be DOA in the best of circumstamces. Both Greenlight Pinellas and Go Hillsborough were tainted by shady dealings involving bureaucratic functionaries: Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority CEO Brad Miller and Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill.
The centerpiece of both transit plans was a light rail system that would have paid off bond attorneys, wealthy land barons, realtors, engineering firms, and other entrenched business interests.
Neighboring counties haven’t been suckers so far. Polk County voters smothered a sales tax for roads 72-28 percent in 2014. The mettle of Manatee County voters will be tested in November when they will be asked to extend a half-cent schools sales tax and implement an “infrastructure” tax for the same amount.
The roundtable discussion was moderated by Ed Regan, senior vice president of CDM Smith, a multinational engineering and construction firm. The Tampa Bay Times was aware of the symposium and whether it was staffed or not, no article has appeared in the Times digital edition 12 days after the event.
The summit was hosted by Floridians for Better Transportation in partnership with the Transportation and Expressway Authority Membership of Florida. One of the corporate sponsors was Parsons Brinckerhoff, the multinational engineering firm that stood to eventually haul in as much as a quarter billion dollars if Go Hillsborough passed.