Thursday, April 19, 2018
Education

For the Penny for Pasco tax renewal, ballot wording is carefully chosen by officials

LAND O'LAKES — Words matter.

And when you get only 75 of them, they take on an even greater significance.

That's why Pasco County government and School District officials are spending so much time writing and rewriting the ballot language they expect to put before voters in November, asking them to renew the Penny for Pasco sales tax.

"The ballot language is why we're asking voters to vote for the Penny," said Ann Hildebrand, chairwoman of the County Commission. "Somebody has to craft the language to make it appealing to the public."

During the campaign, residents will have the opportunity to hear speeches and see slide presentations on how the current sales tax money has been spent, and how the future tax revenues would be dedicated.

But many voters might see nothing other than the ballot. So the wording must be thorough and accurate, while also meeting all the legal requirements, said Hutch Brock, co-chairman of the citizens committee backing the referendum.

"I would hate to underestimate how important it could be," Brock said.

A key to success could be something as basic as the order of the words placed before the voters, said School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso, who has worked with county government lawyers to tweak the draft repeatedly for maximum effect.

One early version, for instance, started the list of proposed expenditures with economic development and job creation programs, a top goal of many voters, according to the citizens committee's internal polling. A later draft moved school renovations to the front, while another iteration shifted education technology to the lead item.

Job creation was back as the first point in the latest version, released Friday morning.

"If there is a way to propel economic development as the county envisions, and it is going to lead to jobs . . . then absolutely we ought to mention it," Brock said.

Several interests are in play, Alfonso noted, so as each group comes forward with its revised project list, the county attorney's office works to incorporate those into the allotted 75 words as succinctly as possible. It's a constantly moving target, he said.

"They have been wonderfully cooperative and sensitive to what we want in the language," Alfonso added.

In promoting the referendum, Hildebrand said, a big message will be that the sales tax revenue was used properly and well in its first go-round. Promises made, promises kept.

"We've done a good job with that," she said. "We have to do a good job of marketing that."

But in all the initial writings of the ballot measure, the wording only asked if voters shall approve a 10-year tax.

Only in the latest version did lawyers add language suggesting that the request is to renew an existing tax: "Shall Pasco County continue to levy a one-cent sales surtax, beginning in 2015 . . ."

Another important decision is whether to include the actual percentage division of the tax distributions. The county and school district each would get 45 percent, while the cities would share 10 percent of the expected $502 million over a decade.

When presented with that question during a workshop, School Board member Alison Crumbley wondered aloud, "If the percentage is not in the ballot language, do we still get the percentage?"

The answer was yes. The big details, such as percentages and specific projects, are spelled out in an interlocal agreement among the governments, Alfonso said.

The question, he continued, is whether voters need to know the breakdown while in the voting booth, or, essentially, whether it is worth listing them when there are few words to spare on the ballot. That decision is still up in the air.

Board member Allen Altman, who headed the first Penny for Pasco campaign before joining the board, said that trying to write the perfect referendum language is an art, and not an easy one.

It has to be clear, honest and transparent, he said, so voters can be sure that what they see is what they get.

"It is truly a logistic nightmare to fit all that into the little thing," Altman said. "It may seem simple, but it's not."

Lawyers planned to continue revising the proposed Penny for Pasco ballot language through the weekend. County commissioners and School Board members are scheduled to discuss the wording during a joint workshop Wednesday.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

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