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Debate over natural gas falls along GOP fault lines

NEW PORT RICHEY — The discussion was about compressed natural gas, but keen observers saw an early scrimmage in the fight to be Pasco's GOP state committeeman.

Bill Bunting, who has held the post since 2008, pitched a plan Tuesday to county commissioners for the county and the school district to switch to natural gas-powered vehicles.

"Pasco should join counties around the state in bringing natural gas here," he said. "It's cleaner, you get a longer engine life. It provides jobs in America."

Bunting has been working with Commissioner Henry Wilson and County Administrator John Gallagher on the idea. Several commissioners on Tuesday said they were intrigued. "I think it's a good idea to set up a committee, and take a look at the benefits and the costs," said Commissioner Jack Mariano.

Then came the anti-Bunting forces on the county Republican Executive Committee.

"This dog isn't going to hunt," said George Skinner, a precinct chairman from Hudson, citing figures from the school district's transportation maintenance supervisor that natural gas doesn't provide enough fuel efficiency. "I would suggest you shelve this."

Part of Bunting's pitch Tuesday was for the school district to use Penny for Pasco sales tax money to help pay for the new buses. With student population leveling off, he said, the district should be able to find money that would otherwise go toward building new schools.

A vocal opponent of the tax when it passed in 2004, Bunting earlier told the Times he is not a supporter of this November's effort to renew the tax for another 10 years. But if the renewal is adopted, he said, it should include a natural gas component.

That stance brought scoffs from Bunting's critics, including former county commissioner Steve Simon, who is challenging Bunting for the state committeeman job.

"That was the gentleman who opposed the sales tax so strongly when I was on the commission, and now he takes the role of the person who tells you what to do with it," Simon said. "Things do change in Pasco."

Added former GOP chairman Hugh Townsend: "If it is such a great idea, then private industry is going to jump on it, and it is going to become a reality."

After the meeting, Wilson acknowledged that the county "might have to wait" on the natural gas idea. And though he appreciated the public comments, he said, "you have to figure out what their true motives are."

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

Debate over natural gas falls along GOP fault lines 03/20/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 20, 2012 7:28pm]

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