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Three reasons Victor Crist won't vote for the Hillsborough transportation sales tax referendum

Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist is the swing vote likely to decide whether Hillsborough moves forward with a sales tax referendum for transportation

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Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist is the swing vote likely to decide whether Hillsborough moves forward with a sales tax referendum for transportation



Yesterday, Bay Buzz laid out the case for why Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist might vote to put the half cent sales tax transformation referendum on the 2016 ballot. You can read that here.

Today, here’s three reason why Crist, currently positioned as the tiebreaker on this, won’t vote for the referendum.

Crist doesn’t want to be known as the deciding vote that spurred a $117 million a year tax increase

Crist put it this way: "For me, it's a lose-lose proposition. If I vote against it, I'm the guy who killed the plan. If I vote for it, I'm the guy who moved the bad plan forward." In Monday’s post, Bay Buzz analyzed what it meant to be “the guy who killed the plan.” Here’s what it would mean to be “the guy who moved the bad plan forward.”

To be clear, Crist was not saying that the plan is bad; he’s still digesting it, he said, and doesn’t have an opinion yet. But that’s how opponents will cast it if it passes.

During the next 30 years until it sunsets, a half cent sales tax would raise $3.5 billion from taxpayers, or about $117 million a year. Even though voters would ultimately be voting to tax themselves through the referendum, Crist, a Republican, could still be vulnerable to a challenge and those numbers will be used against him. Tea Party leader Sharon Calvert unsuccessfully challenged Crist in a 2012 primary and Crist’s vote would give her or another challenger amo to try again in 2018. Or it could be used against him in a primary if he tries to make a jump to a countywide seat or constitutional office eventually.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn tried to make the case to Commissioner Stacy White at the Nov. 5 Policy Leadership Group that his south and east Hillsborough district will benefit from the projects spurred by a tax increase, too, whether directly or otherwise — a “rising tide lifts all boats” argument. White wasn’t swayed and stood firmly against it.

Crist’s district — which stretches from north county to between Temple Terrace and Plant City and down to Brandon — is closer in its makeup to White’s than to the city Buckhorn leads. By Crist’s own admission, residents there are unlikely to pass a sales tax hike. Does Crist want to be an outlier Republican in his very Republican district?

“I know where my district is on the vote, that if we we do a referendum it isn’t going to pass in my district, it’s going to pass in the others,” he said. “It’s also difficult because a lot of my friends and supporters are dead set against it. But something needs to be done.”

The loudest voices Crist hears — on both sides of the spectrum — don’t like it

Crist, a state lawmaker for 18 years, has said he knew he had a winning compromise when everybody was mad.

Well, that might be the case with Go Hillsborough, as Crist sees it.

“The majority of people in the room are against it,” Crist said after the vote. “The conservative tea party is against. The Republican Party of Hillsborough is opposed. The environmentalists are opposed to it. The pro-rail people are opposed to it because ... it doesn't go far enough and for another group it goes too far.”

In Tallahassee you might say a plan no one loves is middle ground and run with it, but this isn’t the statehouse. Ultimately, voters are going to decide this, and, as they proved in the failed 2010 referendum, it’s a tough sell. If there’s little excitement from the grassroots for a half-cent sales tax increase, it’s going to make it harder to win support at the ballot.

That could change once the county commission votes to put it on the ballot and the campaign to pass it begins in earnest. Proponents are optimistic, too, that the business community will ultimately fall on their side, and it should have a better chance of reaching the 50-percent needed in 2016, a presidential election year when voter turnout is higher and more liberal. But it has to get there first and right now Crist isn’t hearing enough voices clamoring for it.

The ongoing controversy with the Parsons Brinckerhoff contract will push Crist to vote no

The wildcard in all this remains the Sheriff Office’s investigation into the $1.35 million contract awarded to Parsons Brinckerhoff to conduct public outreach, formulate a transportation plan and come up with ways to fund it. At Administrator Mike Merrill’s request, the sheriff is reviewing whether the contract was awarded legally, ethically and not due to the influence of Parsons’ client, Beth Leytham, a Tampa public relationship consultant close to several local politicians. Leytham was hired by Parsons as a subcontractor after it was awarded the deal.

If the Sheriff’s Office finds even a hint of wrongdoing, all bets are off, and even the three commissioners who support the half-cent sales tax could defect. The county auditor has already found there was no wrongdoing and Merrill is hopeful the sheriff’s report will help restore credibility to Go Hillsborough, not kill it entirely.

So far there’s no timeline on when the results of the investigation will be finalized. The longer it takes, the longer Crist might be in limbo, since it’s possible the board will wait for the sheriff’s all clear before proceeding. Ideally, it would wrap up in time for commissioners to vote next month or January at the latest.

Even if there’s no wrongdoing, Crist could still cite the controversy as a reason not to support the final outcome. Two commissioners, Sandy Murman and Al Higginbotham, have at least partially blamed Parsons’ and Leytham’s involvement for losing their vote.

Crist was harshly critical of Merrill this summer when he, Leytham and some county staff decided to put a full-cent sales tax back on the table without alerting commissioners. And Crist said he needs to be assured that Parsons has a fully formed plan, and didn’t just reach the conclusion county staff wanted them to. In that regard, Crist’s concerns echo those from opponents.

“With the recent unveiling of events and concerns with the way the consultants were hired … it leaves a certain level of skepticism of how solid is the plan,” Crist said. “Is the plan a document to sell us on an idea, or is the plan solid enough where we can bank on it producing reasonable outcomes?”

[Last modified: Tuesday, November 17, 2015 8:50am]


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