ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas County legislators voted 6-2 Thursday for a bill that would allow voters to swap property taxes for higher sales taxes for buses and rail.
Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority officials support the bill because they think the swap is necessary to eventually persuade voters to pass a sales tax for transit. If the Legislature approves, the County Commission would have to vote to put the tax increase on the ballot.
But even opening the door to a higher sales tax for rail upset some conservatives during the county delegation's meeting in downtown St. Petersburg.
"What is the business plan for PSTA? I don't know because nobody came and met with me. … I think there is a significant opportunity for this to be a tax increase on the citizens of Pinellas County," said state Rep. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who voted no with Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole.
"A sales tax is an incredibly regressive tax," Brandes added.
State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, sponsored the bill with Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater. They called criticism overblown and false.
Hooper suggested the county wait for the existing Penny for Pinellas to expire and switch it to transit projects without raising the tax rate, though no PSTA plan has included that option. The bill will stop PSTA from "double dipping" in property and sales taxes, he said.
"This is not supporting or endorsing any tax increase whatsoever. There is no tax increase in this bill at all," he added.
PSTA will receive $32 million in property taxes this year. Raising the sales tax from 7 percent to 8 percent could generate roughly $100 million annually. Ahern compared the sales tax to pouring money into a "failing" endeavor — mirroring tea party complaints.
Also Thursday, state Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, withdrew a bill that would have allowed local governments in Pinellas to opt out of firearm laws if voters approve.
Local governments had to repeal restrictions this year after the Legislature imposed fines and other penalties if local officials did not eliminate their firearm limits. The state law goes back decades but hadn't often been enforced.
Pinellas Republican lawmakers ripped Kriseman's bill, and supporters said it threatened their rights.
"Shame on us for letting it go 20 years without enforcing this earlier," Hooper said.
David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com.