Sunday, April 22, 2018
Politics

Hillsborough voters to decide if local ballot initiatives need price tags

TAMPA — Hillsborough County voters who manage their way through the state constitutional amendment questions will have another pair of decisions to make before submitting their ballots.

Both propose changes to the county's charter, its own constitution of sorts. One, if passed, would mimic state law that applies to citizen-led constitutional changes, requiring a cost ramification to be included on future local ballot initiatives. The other is almost clerical in nature.

The first was pushed by tea party activists in the context of a 2010 ballot question that asked voters if they supported raising the sales tax by a penny to pay for more transit, including new commuter rail. Opponents of the measure said voters were never told how much that would cost.

They took their concern to the county's Charter Review Board, which considers changes to the document every five years. After months of haggling, the board agreed to place the question on this year's ballot, though not quite the way those seeking the language had sought.

The tea party backers had asked that total costs — or for that matter, revenues — be included with any ballot initiative. Former County Commissioner Jan Platt, a Democrat who served on the Charter Review Board, presented an alternative that would present costs or revenues for the first two years after an initiative passes.

"I'm not opposed to disclosing facts regarding money," Platt said. "I think that's just financial disclosure."

In the context of the proposed transit tax, she said a total cost projection would have been "astronomical," likely cementing defeat for any proposal. So she floated the two-year time frame as a compromise.

With the transit tax, however, a two-year cost projection likely would have been miniscule in terms of the overall costs of increased bus service and a new commuter rail system. The initiative failed anyway.

Sharon Calvert, co-founder of the Tampa Tea Party organization, said the ballot language represents a first step. It will require the county's main budget officer to come up with at least some cost projection that will help inform voters' decisions.

"Let's at least get something out there so someone is accountable," Calvert said, "because right now we've got nothing."

Unlike the state requirement, the change would apply to all ballot initiatives, not just those sought by citizens. Voters may notice that none of the 11 state constitutional amendment proposals, all placed on the ballot by the Legislature, have price tags.

The second local ballot question asks to change wording relating to a prohibition against discrimination. If approved, it would replace the words "physical handicap" with "disability," in keeping with modern norms, said Sandy Sroka, the county's Americans with Disabilities Act liaison. It also broadens the definition of those protected from discrimination to include those with other forms of disability beyond the physical.

Plant City residents will have yet another ballot question to consider. If approved, it would allow the City Commission to appoint replacements to its board if vacancies occur within 15 months of an election, similar to rules for the city of Tampa. Currently, Plant City's charter requires an election regardless of when a vacancy occurs at a current cost of about $15,000 for each election.

Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.

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