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Four things that could happen at tonight's Hillsborough transportation tax vote

Hillsborough County will vote tonight on whether to raise the sales tax to fund transportation fixes here.

Times File Photo

Hillsborough County will vote tonight on whether to raise the sales tax to fund transportation fixes here.

Here we go again.

Hillsborough County commissioners will hold a public hearing tonight to decide whether to send voters a referendum to raise the sales tax by a half cent to pay for transportation needs. Commissioners in April rejected sales tax hikes of 20 years and 30 years by narrow 4-3 votes.

This time, commissioners are considering whether to raise the sales tax from 7 percent to 7.5 percent for 15 years. It’s a compromise that’s supposed to win over at least one of the four “no” votes from April. In reality, though, commissioners can vote on a sales tax of whatever duration they like, and that includes putting referendums of 20 and 30 years back on the table.

Here are four potential outcomes of tonight’s meeting, which is at 6 p.m. on the second floor of the county budget center.

They pass a 15-year, half-cent sales tax

A sales tax hike was thought dead before commissioners voted 5-2 in May to set a public hearing to consider it again, this time a 15-year surcharge. But don’t mistake considerable support for a hearing as support for raising the sales tax. Commissioners Al Higginbotham and Victor Crist said they were moving it forward to keep the dialogue going. Of those two, Higginbotham appears more receptive to this compromise measure. Crist’s thinking is anyone’s guess at this point (if you’ll remember, he sounded awfully close to voting for a 30-year tax before he became the deciding vote that killed it and has since become a critic of any tax hike). Commissioner Stacy White is a hard no on any sales tax increase, and has been since joining the commission in 2015, and Commissioner Sandy Murman yesterday floated her own proposal quite different from a sales tax hike.

Even supporters see this option, at best, as “something is better than nothing.” It would still bring in about $117 million a year and could fund some transit projects in the county. The City of Tampa and the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority would each have enough to tackle some of their planned transit needs (though not nearly all of them). But it’s half of what County Administrator Mike Merrill recommended last November, which was already half of what the county said it needed when it asked voters for a one cent sales tax hike of 30 years in 2010. The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce has lobbied hard for a surcharge of at least 20 years. Who would actually campaign and stick their neck out for this once it shifts from the commission to the community before the November referendum?

Still, every indication is the three who supported a 30-year tax -- Commissioners Kevin Beckner, Ken Hagan and Les Miller -- will hold their noses and vote for a 15-year tax. Whether it can get a fourth vote, though, remains to be seen.

Definitely yes: Beckner, Miller

Likely yes: Hagan

On the fence: Higginbotham, Crist

Likely no: Murman

Definitely no: White

They pass a sales tax hike longer than 15 years

Notably, Miller last month asked the county attorney for clarification on whether commissioners could reconsider tax hikes of 20 and 30 years even though they voted them down in April. He was told they could. Suddenly, two options many thought dead popped back up like zombies.

A 30-year tax seems out of the question, but could a 20-year surcharge be back in play? It’s unlikely, but Higginbotham did leave himself some wiggle room to flip sides. In April, when he voted against the 20- and 30-year taxes, one major objection was a last-minute proposal from Beckner to add new safeguards that would ensure commissioners didn’t raid the funds for other uses or change the project list. Higginbotham didn’t appreciate a curveball he had no time to study and predicted that it would lead to a failed vote. He was right. But he has since had more than a month to review those changes. Could time, coupled with a strong push from the business community change Higginbotham’s mind?

Crist, again, remains a wildcard. Since the April vote he has been on a crusade to exhaust all other options in the current budget to fund transportation. He has hardly appeared satisfied by the commission’s and the county staff’s attempts at that. Yesterday Merrill told the commission her found 3.2 percent of savings in his own administration’s fund budget as a gesture of good faith, and instead Crist said he was interested in learning more about Murman’s plan.

Definitely yes: Beckner, Hagan, Miller

On the fence: Higginbotham, Crist

Likely no: Murman

Definitely no: White

They pass a sales tax hike shorter than 15 years

How low do you have to go to get a “yes” from Higginbotham, Crist or Murman? Maybe the question is, if it’s too short a duration, would it lose support from the commissioners who have voted for a long-term sales tax?

A 10-year tax has some interest because commissioners already approved a $907 million list of transportation projects to accomplish in the next 10 years. In that sense, it has some symmetry. But a 10 year tax eliminates transit entirely from the list of county projects (though HART would still get some funds). That's because these projects rely on federal grants and Washington is less likely to committ money to long-term, expensive transit solutions that local governments aren't committing to operating for their full life (typically 30 years).

As it is, Hagan has said he won’t consider 10 years. Miller and Beckner have not weighed in on that but they clearly have a problem with the lack of transit in that option (however, Beckner once proposed his own 10-year plan). A 5-year plan would mean the county could raise enough to fix potholes and other maintenance, but there’s some thought it could serve as a short-term bridge to eliminate some of the backlog as the county conducts a region-wide transit study and considers whether to buy rail lines from CSX. Then, the county could go back to the voters in a few years with a more robust plan and these studies in hand.

Murman on Wednesday proposed an alternative funding plan based entirely on future revenue growth. That lessens the likelihood she’ll get behind a sales tax of even a very short duration.

On the fence: Beckner, Crist, Hagan, Higginbotham, Miller

Likely no: Murman

Definitely no: White

They reject all sales tax increase and go back the drawing board.

There’s two ways this could go down. They could vote to defeat the sales tax surcharge once again. Or they could hold off on a vote tomorrow and have another public hearing in the future to consider a sales tax side-by-side against Murman’s proposals and White’s idea to create a countywide tax increment finance district.

In reality, not much has changed since April. The information is the same, the political environment is the same and the players are the same. Would tweaking the number of the years really change that much? A tax hike is still a tax hike, and those unlikely to vote for one of 30 years or 20 years are probably unlikely to vote for one of 15 years, 10 years, 5 years or even 5 weeks. The argument that this is not raising a tax, but asking voters if they want to raise taxes on themselves so far has not swayed a fourth commissioner.

If tonight ends without any solution, they won’t leave entirely empty handed, though. The commission already set a policy that half of all future growth in property tax revenue for the next three years and one-third after that will go toward transportation. They also passed new mobility fees that eventually could bring in $35 million a year from developers (though it’s likely to be much less in the first decade). And they have new ideas from Murman and White to consider.

With an estimated $9 billion in current and future transportation needs, the policies already passed likely won’t be enough. There’s consensus on the board that the county’s transportation network and lack of funding for it are a major problem that will burden future boards, economic recruitment efforts and overall quality of life for citizens. But a commission that a year ago sounded united in its quest to pass a transportation solution is now more divided than ever.

[Last modified: Thursday, June 9, 2016 11:22am]


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