Thursday, September 20, 2018
Politics

Greenlight backers ponder what went wrong and what's next

As the shock of the margin of defeat wore off Wednesday, it was time for Greenlight Pinellas supporters to begin the post-mortem and start thinking about where to go from here.

The transit referendum needed a simple majority and failed miserably, garnering just 38 percent of the vote. If approved, Greenlight would have increased the sales tax by a penny to expand bus service and build a light rail line between Clearwater and St. Petersburg.

Here are four things that supporters are talking about in the wake of Tuesday's loss.

Only St. Pete support

A Supervisor of Elections map shows that except for two outliers in the central part of the county, Greenlight only won precincts in central and southern St. Petersburg.

From the beginning, the Yes on Greenlight campaign worked hard to counter the sentiment among north county voters, who tend to be more conservative and car-centric, that there wasn't enough in the plan for them. That effort fell short, said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.

"North Pinellas wasn't really engaged in the way the plan was laid out and from the standpoint of giving the folks enough of an understanding of why this was important to them," Kriseman said.

But the plan also failed to win precincts along the proposed light rail route in places such as Largo, Pinellas Park, Clearwater and northern St. Petersburg.

"From day one everyone knew it needed to win big in south Pinellas to counter north Pinellas, but I don't think anyone saw that map coming," said Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice.

Ballot language concerns

A big selling point of the plan was the promise to replace the property tax that currently funds the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority with the sales tax if Greenlight passed.

The County Commission wanted to include information about this so-called tax swap in the ballot language but the county attorney advised against it because the law limits referendum questions to one issue. The campaign worked hard to spread the message that many households would have broken even or saved money, said Commissioner Susan Latvala.

"I'm assuming most people believed us, but then they get to the polls and say, 'Oh my God, it doesn't say anything about eliminating the property tax,' " Latvala said.

Opponents and the campaign

Opponents of the plan had the advantage of a simple no-tax message but also spread misinformation, Greenlight backers said.

"The Greenlight people let the opponents take the issues and make them their issues, and that's where they failed," Clearwater Mayor Cretekos said.

The campaign spent more than $1 million, mostly on commercials and direct mail pieces, but didn't reach enough people through one-on-one contact, said Yes on Greenlight co-chairman Chris Steinocher.

Steinocher, the president and CEO of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, said volunteers could win over many skeptics by taking five or 10 minutes explaining the plan.

He said he wishes the campaign had started earlier.

"If we'd had 40,000 more conversations, you'd be writing a different story right now."

Mandate on rail?

Barb Haselden, leader of the opposition group No Tax for Tracks, called the accusations against her group "hollow and unfounded." Haselden said the defeat is a mandate against light rail in Pinellas.

"The message was sold in every way it could be sold by the Greenlight faction," she said. "It was going to create jobs, bring growth, keep their kids from leaving town, and yet 62 percent of the people didn't buy it."

None of the Greenlight supporters reached by the Tampa Bay Times agreed with the mandate argument. They noted that transit tax referenda in other counties, including Polk, died by large margins without light rail.

"It certainly speaks to messaging, because this transit proposal wasn't all about rail," said Commissioner Janet Long. "That's what the No Tax for Track people turned it into."

Supporters said it will take months of study and talking to voters to decide if light rail really is a non starter here.

"Maybe we should have done a 50-year plan that showed where future lines would have gone," Commissioner Karen Seel said. "Maybe we look at staging. Should we start with bus rapid transit, create the (rider) demand and then look at the next steps?"

Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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