Mailer attacking House candidate Starkey leaves out needed context

A new political mailer from the "Committee to Protect Florida" attacks state House District 45 candidate Kathryn Starkey for her record on taxes, citing her role on a water district board and her support of the Penny for Pasco.

The committee is headed up by Rockie Pennington, a political consultant for Richard Corcoran, one of Starkey's two opponents in the Aug. 24 Republican primary. (Fabian Calvo is also on the ballot.)

"Taxin' Kathryn," says the mailer. "With Kathryn Starkey's record on taxes here at home, how can we trust her — or afford her — in Tallahassee?"

We wondered, can you trust the mailer's claims?

• • •

We look first at this two-part claim: One, that "as a member of the Pinellas-Anclote River Basin Board, Kathryn Starkey had the opportunity to fight for lower taxes in 14 separate budget meetings between 2002 and 2008. But … She only attended half of those meetings!"

Two, that when she did attend, "Starkey aided and abetted the continued taxation on residents' properties over 70 percent of the time by seconding motions and voting to keep the millage rate the same DESPITE skyrocketing property values that allowed local governments to pad their budgets."

Pennington, Corcoran's campaign consultant, said he based that two-part claim on minutes from the basin board's meetings. We took a look, too.

On the attendance question, we looked at two budget meetings each year: June, when the basin board typically sets its preliminary tax rate, and August, when it takes a final vote. (In 2007, the final vote was taken in July.)

Starkey served on the board from June 2002 through April 2008, so we looked only at the 12 budget-related meetings that fell within that period. (Pennington, who put together his mailer a month ago, said he wasn't sure why we came up with different counts for the meetings.)

Of 12 budget meetings she could have attended, Starkey attended seven (five of those seven were the final votes). That attendance record is more than half — by a hair.

We rate this claim Mostly True.

• • •

Next we look at the second half of the mailer's claim: that Starkey voted to keep the same tax rate more than 70 percent of the time even as taxable values were going up. Here is what the minutes show: Of the seven budget meetings she attended, the board voted six times to keep the tax rate the same. Starkey voted with her colleagues five out of those six times (She cast a dissenting vote in 2006). So overall, she voted over 70 percent of the time to keep the same tax rate.

All this came as taxable values were soaring in Pinellas and Pasco counties.

Between fiscal year 2003 and fiscal year 2007, when the rate stayed at 40 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, the total taxable values for the basin board went from roughly $48 billion to $81 billion in Pasco and Pinellas counties, according to Southwest Florida Water Management District.

By the time the board lowered the rate to 37 cents for fiscal year 2008, the total values were roughly $86.6 billion.

Simply counting votes misses an important fact, though. Starkey did make efforts to lower the tax rate.

In 2004, for instance, she made a motion to lower the rate to 39 cents. The motion died for lack of a second, and Starkey went along with the rest of the board to keep the tax rate the same.

And it was Starkey who took the lead role in 2006 when she again argued for lowering the rate, this time making a motion to set it at 37 1/2 cents.

The motion failed. She tried again, arguing for 38 cents. Her motion failed again. The board voted 3 to 2 to keep it at 40 cents, and Starkey dissented for the first time.

At the preliminary budget meeting in June 2007, Starkey made the motion to set the rate for the 2008 budget at 37 cents, which finally passed. "Every year I tried to roll it back," she said, but didn't have the votes.

Pennington's mailer is technically correct: Starkey did go along most of the time to keep the tax rate for the basin board the same, even as taxable values soared.

But it leaves out the important context that Starkey tried over three years to lower the tax rate. We rate this Half True.

• • •

We look now at this claim: "Starkey also joined forces with liberal Democrats on a historic sales tax hike that has siphoned millions of dollars from Pasco taxpayers in the past five years."

The tax hike in question is the Penny for Pasco sales tax, a one-cent-on-the-dollar county sales tax increase to build new schools and roads, preserve land and buy public safety equipment. About 52 percent of voters approved the tax in March 2004. By the end of 2009, the extra penny had pulled in about $205 million.

The claim is that Starkey "joined forces with liberal Democrats" to pass the tax has problems.

First, Starkey played no strong public role in selling the tax to voters. She publicly endorsed the Penny for Pasco during her successful 2004 campaign for School Board, but she never actively campaigned for it or joined the committee promoting it.

Second, where were the liberal Democrats? Pasco's Citizen Committee, the political action committee that formed to promote the tax, had 14 key volunteers: 10 of them registered Republicans, the Pasco Times reported then.

They included well-known Republicans Allen Altman, Joanne Hurley, Thad Lowery and Bill Phillips.

True, the tax got the endorsement of Pasco's Democratic Executive Committee and not that of the county's Republican Executive Committee.

But consider, too, the prominent Republican politicians who publicly supported the tax: Commissioners Ted Schrader, Ann Hildebrand and Pat Mulieri and then-commissioner Steve Simon, along with then-state representatives Ken Littlefield and Heather Fiorentino.

And don't forget Pasco Sheriff Bob White, another Republican, who was quoted in the Pasco Times calling support of the tax a "no-brainer."

White said then that his remarks were aimed primarily at how the tax would help the school district, but his endorsement — however nuanced — was political gold for the tax's backers.

One big selling point for Republicans: The sales tax would result in a property tax reduction on the school district side. (Incidentally, that is not unlike Corcoran's platform in the House 45 campaign to eliminate property taxes and increase the sales tax.)

To be sure, there were Democrats who were very involved in the effort. They included Land O'Lakes lawyer Tim Hayes and, most visibly, Ray Gadd, who led the school system's effort as a Pasco school district administrator at the time. Then-commissioner Peter Altman, a Democrat, was also a vocal supporter.

"I can't think of a liberal Democrat who was involved," said Gadd, who, incidentally, has changed his affiliation to independent.

The strongest opponents of the tax included Republicans Bill and Ann Bunting, leaders in the local party. But even they acknowledge that they were more often fighting people with Rs, not Ds, after their names.

"I can't for the life of me understand how those Republicans supported it," said Ann Bunting.

Pennington, Corcoran's consultant, said he linked Starkey with the Penny leaders because her endorsement as a School Board candidate carried weight. He said he also thought Allen Altman, who helped spearhead the campaign, was a Democrat. (Wrong.)

Corcoran was equally mistaken that the tax was a strongly Democratic initiative. "It was overwhelmingly pushed by Democratic leaders," he said. (He was also unaware that White — whom he now works for as a contract attorney — endorsed the Penny.)

A new tax may be often associated with "liberal Democrats," but that wasn't the case with the Penny for Pasco, particularly when it came to those who were publicly pushing for it.

We rate this claim False.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

The statement

"As a member of the Pinellas-Anclote River Basin Board, Kathryn Starkey had the opportunity to fight for lower taxes in 14 separate budget meetings between 2002 and 2008. But ... She only attended half of those meetings!"

Committee to Protect Florida, in a mailer

The ruling

There were actually 12 budget meetings Starkey could have attended during her tenure on the basin board. She attended seven meetings, or just more than half.

We rate this claim Mostly True.

The statement

"Starkey aided and abetted the continued taxation on residents' properties over 70 percent of the time by seconding motions and voting to keep the millage rate the same DESPITE skyrocketing property values that allowed local governments to pad their budgets."

Committee to Protect Florida, in a mailer

The ruling

Starkey voted five out of seven times — or 71 percent of the time — to keep the same tax rate as property values were on the rise. The statement, while technically correct, leaves out the important context that Starkey offered several motions over the years to lower the tax rate.

We rate this claim Half True.

The statement

"Starkey also joined forces with liberal Democrats on a historic sales tax hike that has siphoned millions of dollars from Pasco taxpayers in the past five years."

Committee to Protect Florida, in a mailer

The ruling

Starkey endorsed the Penny for Pasco during her successful 2004 campaign for School Board, but she was not part of the citizens' committee that pushed for the tax, and she did not actively campaign for it. Moreover, a number of Republican officials and volunteers spearheaded the campaign for the tax.

We find this claim False.

Mailer attacking House candidate Starkey leaves out needed context 08/14/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 14, 2010 12:17pm]

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