Florida lawmakers back tax swap for Pinellas rail, buses

Backers of bringing light rail and more buses to Pinellas County have an idea to persuade people to pay for it:

If voters approve a sales tax increase for those additions, the county's property tax for transit services would end.

The Florida House's Economic Affairs Committee voted 16-0 Friday to approve a bill requiring the so-called "tax swap."

It was the third and last committee that needed to support the bill (HB 865) to send it to the full House for voting, due as early as next week. Then it would go to a vote in the Senate, where Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, spearheads the measure.

In a sign of the testy nature of taxes and rail, however, the sponsor of the bill said he actually opposes a tax increase for rail.

But Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, said he's pushing the bill as a safeguard for taxpayers so that if a sales tax increase does pass, the bus agency couldn't also keep collecting property taxes."It's not a rail bill," said Hooper.

But it is to many supporters and opponents.

A 2010 county task force backed such a plan as part of building rail and increasing bus service The approach gained steam as transit officials studied increasing buses and rail, but hoped to avoid the fate of a 2010 sales tax for rail in Hillsborough that voters panned.

"It's just a fairer way to fund transportation services in the county," Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch said.

With falling property values, money has shriveled for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, which provides bus service in most of Pinellas. A sales tax greatly increases revenue and shifts the burden from property owners, proponents say. Tourists pay part of a sales tax.

PSTA will receive nearly $33 million in 2012 from the .7305 mill in property taxes it levies annually. State estimates say a penny per dollar increase in the sales tax in Pinellas means about $120 million a year.

A recent study by PSTA calls for a 24-mile route for rail from downtown Clearwater toward the Gateway area and then to downtown St. Petersburg. The estimated cost is $1.5 billion to $1.7 billion.

After ending the property tax, a sales tax increase would provide enough cash for rail and for expanding bus service by 70 percent, the study found.

With County Commission approval, voters could face a referendum for the sales tax hike in 2013 or 2014.

But a few Pinellas lawmakers say they don't want to open the door to an increase that raises the sales tax rate in Pinellas from 7 percent to 8 percent, tops in the state. PSTA already has the power to zero out its property tax without the bill.

"This is one necessary domino so the other dominos can fall (for rail). I would rather nip it in the beginning," said Rep. Jeff Brandes, who opposes the bill with another St. Petersburg Republican, Rep. Larry Ahern. "This is a pot sweetener to raise taxes."

Florida lawmakers back tax swap for Pinellas rail, buses 02/24/12 [Last modified: Friday, February 24, 2012 10:35pm]

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