TAMPA — Moving Hillsborough Forward, a group pushing for passage of a 1-cent sales tax in November to pay for transportation improvements, bills itself as a grass roots effort.
But NoTaxForTracks.com, which is fighting the proposal, says it represents the real grass roots.
"We're not executives or chamber heads," said Karen Jaroch, one of the group's founders. "We're SMART moms."
That's SMART, as in Suburban Moms Against the Rail Tax.
Recent campaign finance reports show No Tax has raised just $150 from its three founders since its creation July 12.
Moving Hillsborough Forward, formed in March, has raised $1 million.
Its contributions come from the likes of the Holland & Knight law firm, Regions Bank, TECO, engineering firms, construction companies and other big businesses. Their contributions range up to $50,000 each.
And Tampa chamber chairman Chuck Sykes and his company recently offered to match donations made to the group.
"That's not grass roots," Jaroch said. "They're all downtown businesses sticking it to the taxpayers."
If approved by voters, the proposed sales tax would pay for road improvements, increased bus service and a new rail line.
Moving Hillsborough Forward argues the tax will create thousands of jobs, promote economic development, protect the environment and provide transportation.
To advance its cause, the group has launched a television ad. Its speakers bureau includes business leaders, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and former U.S. Rep. Jim Davis.
Last week, Iorio hosted a telephone town hall meeting with nearly 3,000 people in southern Hillsborough County.
A poll conducted during the event showed the referendum passing with 52 percent in support, 16 percent against and the remainder undecided.
With little money to work with, NoTaxForTracks.com must rely on phone banks, door knocking and no-frills, black-and-white photocopied literature to get its message across. "Yes, we are facing the David-and-Goliath story," said co-founder Sharon Calvert. "But we're going to try to get out to the voters."
Iorio said Calvert and Jaroch don't need much money to communicate their position. "All they have to say is they're against any tax at all," she said. "I'm sure that resonates with a certain number of people." A protax message is more difficult to sell, she said.
Supporters must explain what roads will benefit, what new bus routes it will pay for, and the long-term vision for regional rail.
"That takes money," Iorio said.
Similar initiatives in other communities also have been supported by large and small businesses, as well as individuals, she said.
"The reason businesses are giving is they understand that future economic growth and our future quality of life depends on this," Iorio said. "They themselves may not particularly benefit in any way from it."
Jaroch and Calvert, who are active in the Glen Beck-inspired 912 Project, say the tax is just another example of government spending run amok.
"We're not saying that there isn't a problem, but I believe there are other alternatives out there," Calvert said. She said government needs to better budget taxes that people already pay. Transportation problems should be solved with more flexible options, such as expanded bus service.
Jaroch said that when she first moved to her Northdale neighborhood, the county bus agency had a park-and-ride lot nearby.
"Had this been rail, they would have put in a rail line and fixed tracks and station. There would be no going back," she said. "It is now gated and tumbleweeded over."
In this economy, Calvert said, raising taxes is a mistake. "That's Economics 101."
NoTax's first outreach event was last week at a County Commission candidate forum hosted by the Tampa 912 Project.
The group raised about $50 and collected e-mails and phone numbers from supporters.
"It's definitely a challenge. I think we're on the right side of the issue, though, so if we can get the message out, or at least be able to present the facts, people will see it our way," Jaroch said. "I'm not totally innocent to the fact that it will be an uphill battle. We are definitely underfunded. But I'm up for the challenge."
Janet Zink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3401.