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Some see commission vote for tax referendum as principled act, others as political suicide

TAMPA — Jim Norman has sounded a repeated refrain to his fellow Hillsborough County commissioners as they've debated a proposed transit tax referendum for next year.

Don't think you'll be able to say you just offered the public a choice, he warned, while casting his dissenting vote.

"You support the tax if you vote today to put it on the ballot," Norman said before a 5-2 vote earlier this month to do just that. "You wouldn't put it on there if you didn't support it."

Norman speaks a political reality, particularly for his fellow Republicans who campaigned as fiscal conservatives. While a vote to hold an election technically does not equal a vote to tax, some voters — especially hard-line conservatives — will see it that way.

If history is a guide, some commissioners may pay a price later on at the ballot box, as Norman has witnessed.

"This is why we are here," said Mark Sharpe, a Republican who has been the commission's most vocal advocate for the referendum. "I believe the ultimate opportunity for an elected official is when you put it on the line because you think it's the right thing to do — to serve for a purpose."

Commissioners have tentatively voted to ask voters if they support raising the sales tax by 1 cent to pay for a light-rail system, expanded bus service and road work. A look at Sharpe's e-mails suggests he is indeed putting it on the line.

"Mark, we are on to you," starts one. "If you vote for this or any other tax increase, you and your staff will be looking for new jobs real soon. Go ahead, make my day, John Hook."

From Betty James in Sun City Center: "I will campaign and financially support anyone who runs against any commissioner … who votes to place this tax on the ballot."

Lutz residents Steven Burden and Kathleen Tate-Burden, members of the county's Republican Executive Committee, add this: "A vote to proceed with this lunacy will mark you forever as a RINO (Republican In Name Only) in our eyes."

It's a theme the board's other no-vote, Al Higginbotham, says he has heard repeatedly in community meetings throughout his suburban and rural east-county district in recent months.

Sharpe is the only commissioner who has explicitly stated that he supports the tax increase, not just having an election about it. It's a position he says he reached reluctantly and after years of study. Most of Hills­borough's major roads are congested now and will get much worse, and the county doesn't have the billions of dollars needed to widen them, he says.

Even if it had the money, there's a limit to road widening, he says. Rail offers commuters an alternative to congestion, one that Sharpe says will attract economic investment, not just new strip malls along ever-expanding swaths of roadway.

"We know what we have been doing hasn't worked," he said.

Other commissioners have emphasized that they are merely asking voters to decide if they want to tax themselves to pay for rail and other transportation needs. In other words, they're putting the choice in hands of the people who would pay the bills.

"Whether intentionally or unintentionally, unfortunately there's been a lot of misinformation about our action today," said Commission Chairman Ken Hagan, a Republican, before the Dec. 2 vote expressing an intent to put the question on the November 2010 ballot. "This board is not approving a sales tax increase."

Hagan went so far as to say he thinks the vote will fail.

Asked later about whether he is concerned that his vote will be viewed as supporting a new tax, Hagan said his record "screams" fiscal conservatism.

"But in the face of $4 billion in unfunded transportation needs (just in roads, not rail), with absolutely no way to fund them with current revenues, I cannot look the other way," Hagan said. "It is incumbent on us to ask the people if improving our transportation system is a priority."

That's a cop-out, says Sam Rashid, a businessman and political activist from east Hillsborough. And he said it is a particularly offensive one coming from someone who portrays himself as fiscally conservative.

"I think it is an act of cowardice for any elected official to use the excuse that they're allowing the voter to make a decision when it comes to taxation or legislation," Rashid said. "It's a way elected officials have of giving themselves deniability."

Rashid has spread this message before, and Norman has seen the outcome.

In 1996, Norman was part of a 5-2 decision to ask voters to approve a half-cent sales tax known as the Community Investment Tax. The tax, which narrowly passed a few months later, has helped pay for new schools, roads and jails, as well as Raymond James Stadium.

Two years after voters approved the tax, Rashid helped pick off Dottie Berger, a Republican commissioner who had supported the referendum. Berger was trying to move from her east county district to an at-large commission seat.

Rashid backed political novice Tim Curtis in the Republican primary. Together, they pounded Berger with a relentless, one-note attack on her support of the tax. Berger said it was a mischaracterization of a vote in favor of a referendum, yet it worked.

"I think there is a segment in the Republican Party that will come after anyone who votes for it," she said of the latest proposal.

Joe Chillura, credited as the architect of the CIT, launched failed bids for Congress and then a return to the County Commission after the tax was passed. He believes his active support of the tax at least played a part in ending his political career. Like Berger, he said he has no regrets.

"Those on the commission who want a career in politics should be wary of what the implications of the vote might be," said Chillura, who switched his affiliation from Democrat to Republican following the CIT vote.

Norman would face his own challenge in 2002, as he also sought to switch to an at-large seat. This time Rashid backed lawyer Stacey Easterling, a fellow Republican commissioner, who used the CIT vote among knocks against Norman.

Norman survived, but after the fiercest campaign in his 17-year commission career.

Count Ed Turanchik as a skeptic of the CIT curse and the threat of a reprise for politicians who support the transit-tax referendum. A Democrat, he is co-founder of the group Connect­Us, a grass roots group backing high-speed commuter rail for Florida. He was also part of the commission bloc that passed the CIT referendum, winning re-election two months later.

He said he believes the rail question poses more of a generational divide than a partisan one, as shown by the many young Republican legislators who last week joined in support of the state rail initiative. People appreciate being asked, he said.

"What's wrong with democracy?" he asks. "When giving people choices becomes politically unpopular and elected people run from that, they should not be in office."

Mayor Pam Iorio, another former commissioner, said it's easy to isolate one vote and draw an unrelated meaning out of it. After all, she was on the County Commission in 1991 when it passed another half-cent sales tax to pay for free health care for the poor. The tax increase was approved by commissioners without a referendum, yet there was little backlash.

Similarly, last year voters in Hillsborough County overwhelmingly voted to spend up to $200 million in property taxes to buy and preserve pristine lands for posterity. There was nary a whimper of protest over commissioners setting the referendum to give voters that choice.

Iorio said she believes voters judge each issue independently on its merits that a majority of them want rail.

"I think the commission has shown leadership," she said.

Some see commission vote for tax referendum as principled act, others as political suicide 12/12/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 12, 2009 9:49pm]

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