Three reasons Victor Crist will vote for the Hillsborough sales tax transportation referendum
As we wrote over the weekend, Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist is the clear swing vote positioned to decide whether the county will move forward with a referendum to raise the sales tax by a half cent to fund 30 years of transportation projects. The vote to put the question on the ballot could come as soon as next month.
In the meantime, we can speculate how he will vote based on what we know about Crist and the issues. Here are three reasons why Crist will break the tie in favor of the referendum. Tomorrow, we’ll publish three reasons why he won’t.
Crist doesn’t want to be known as the deciding vote that killed Go Hillsborough
By most accounts, Tampa and Hillsborough County are on the cusp of something big. Outside of Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik’s development near downtown, countless other ambitious projects are underway or on the horizon. And there is the ongoing recruitment of a large corporate headquarters here, too.
Stakeholders say those efforts continue to be hampered by the county’s transportation woes. In September, Rick Homans, president and CEO of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp., told commissioners that executives list transportation as the number one impediment to moving here.
At this point, no clear alternative plan has emerged. An option put forth by Commissioner Sandy Murman was roundly criticized by (notably) Crist and County Administrator Mike Merrill for tapping into reserves and relying partially on non-recurring revenue streams. Even the one commissioner who voiced some support for it, Stacy White, said he’s against the gas tax increase key to Murman’s proposal. A compromise able to win four votes may be out there (A 10-year tax instead of 30 years? A 25-cent tax? Some combination of Murman’s plan and the half-cent proposal? Something else entirely?) and there’s still time, but so far it hasn’t emerged.
That leaves the the half cent sales tax option as the plan that has the most support among elected officials, and it has the recommendation of county staff after two years of study. And 2016, a presidential election year when voter turnout is expected to be higher and more liberal, is the best chance this will have to pass. Voting against it could stifle any momentum for solving the problem. Does Crist, an elected official here for 23 years, want to be known as the man who killed the solution with the most support to the biggest issue facing the county?
Crist can vote to put it on the ballot without supporting it
Crist, a Republican, laid out a path to supporting the sales tax increase at the Nov. 5 policy leadership group. "My district is tricky. I don't think they'll vote for tax,” he said, “But you know something? I might just be willing to give them a chance."
Former Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who supported the failed 2010 sales tax referendum as a Republican, said that’s the right approach for Crist to take. Even if Crist says he’s personally against increasing the sales tax, he can say voters should have the right to decide, Sharpe noted.
Sharpe said he has been disappointed with the county’s rollout of Go Hillsborough (even wondering why the initiative needs the PR-friendly name). He has many of the same concerns as the activists and commissioners who have lined up against it. Why did Merrill announce the recommendation for a half-cent sales tax before the engineering firm hired, Parsons Brinckerhoff, finished its analysis? Why did Merrill later put the one-cent sales tax option back on the table, creating confusion?
Sharpe said those missteps allowed for opponents to question whether the call for a tax came before the county formed a transportation plan, and it opened the door to criticism of the role of Beth Leytham, the public relations consultant hired by Parsons with county money whose ties to several local politicians became a distraction and focal point of the debate.
But at the end of the day, Sharpe said, none of that will be remembered when people look back on this pivotal moment.
“Twenty years from now looking back, my kids aren’t going to be wondering, ‘Who was it we had who set up the meetings?’ ” he said. “Forget all the slick marketing. Find a way to have an honest conversation with the people. He’s not voting for a tax increase. None of them are. They’re voting to let people decide for themselves, and that's the most democratic thing you can do.”
Crist has personal reasons to support it even if his district might not
Crist doesn’t believe his district, which spans from north county to between Temple Terrace and Plant City down to Brandon, will vote for a tax increase. After two decades representing residents there, it’s fair to say Crist knows their voting patterns.
There are tangible benefits to his district in the plan tied to the half-cent sales tax. And as someone who represents suburban areas outside the three cities and the booming Brandon area, any effort to alleviate rush-hour congestion to and from Tampa and other population centers will benefit his residents too. But some of the bigger ticket items, like a potential transit route from downtown Tampa to Tampa International Airport, is a harder to sell to his voters.
Crist, though, also has strong ties to USF and the area around it, both as an alumnus and as a former leader on the USF Area Civic Association working to improve the blighted streets. Neither the campus nor the troubled community near it are in his district, yet he remains involved there. And now that area is poised for the kind of ambitious transformation Crist always hoped for, with plans for an "innovation district" aimed in part at attracting young, skilled workers. Leaders say transit -- whether it’s more buses or something bigger -- will be critical to those efforts. That will be harder to achieve without the money and flexibility of a sales tax hike.
He’s also on the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, which oversees the airport, and he heads the Public Transportation Commission, which deals with regulating the Tampa-centric taxi industry (and, lately, ridesharing companies like Uber). In those roles, Crist is almost exclusively engaged in transportation matters primarily outside his district.
Crist often points to his own commute into the city for work -- 90 minutes in, two hours on the way home -- as anecdotal evidence something must be done. And the 58-year-old politician says his young daughter’s future factors into his decision as well.
"I want to know that when she's walking to school, she's safe,” he said. “I want to know that when she's driving, she's safe. And I want to know that there's an opportunity for her to stay here to work and not leave so I'm around my grandkids. And that's what it's got to be about."