TAMPA — The Hillsborough County bus agency is offering registered voters free rides on Election Day.
That's raising questions from opponents of a referendum on a 1-cent sales tax that would direct millions of dollars to the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit authority for expanded bus service and light rail.
"Given that there's a referendum that's going to benefit HART, it's probably not a wise thing to do, especially since they've never done it in the past," said Karen Jaroch, a founder of NoTaxForTracks.com, a group formed to fight the sales tax. "It gives the appearance of electioneering."
Florida law prohibits giving anything of value to influence a person's vote.
Ron Meyer, a Tallahassee-based elections law lawyer, said it doesn't appear that the HART promotion violates that law.
"The mere fact that there's a referendum on the ballot doesn't make it an illegal act," he said.
Legal questions would arise, he said, if fares were waived only for people who planned to vote a certain way or if HART encouraged riders to vote in favor of the tax.
"Simply saying, 'On Election Day we're going to allow you to ride for free,' I don't see that as a problem,'' he said. "It would have to be much more explicit than that to make it an election law matter."
HART spokeswoman Marcia Mejia said that although this is the first time the agency has offered free rides on Election Day, it's not unusual.
"Many transit agencies throughout the country do it," she said.
Among them, Mejia said, are agencies in Dallas, Detroit, and Toledo, Ohio.
The Hillsborough promotion offers to waive fares all day Nov. 2 to any destination for anyone who shows a voter registration card. HART also is offering free rides on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, to anyone who shows a military identification card.
"This year, we've really ramped up our promotions. It's a good way to reintroduce people to the bus system," she said.
In April, middle and high school students could ride the bus for free after showing school identification. Free rides were offered on Earth Day, and the "Dog Days of Summer" promotion allowed some passengers to ride free any one Friday in August.
The Election Day promotion was prompted by Curtis Stokes, a Tampa City Council member who sits on the HART board.
He suggested that the agency offer the free rides after getting a request to do so from the Florida African American and Caribbean Empowerment Alliance, an organization based in Miami Lakes that works to increase voter participation.
"It's just to increase the number of people who will go out and vote, who traditionally don't have rides, to use the resources of HART to go out and vote," Stokes said.
Doug Guetzloe is chairman of Ax the Tax, an Orlando-based organization that has fought new taxes throughout the state. His group has spent thousands of dollars to fight the Hillsborough sales tax.
He calls the promotion a "blatant attempt" to encourage users of HART to vote for the tax, which — if it passes — in its first year is expected to raise $138.4 million for HART to pay for expanded bus service and rail.
"I have no evidence of this, but there's no doubt in my mind there's going to be distribution of materials on the buses," he said. "We're going to be watching for that."
Guetzloe said it's particularly ironic because minorities and senior citizens represent a large percentage of bus riders. Those are populations that many agree would be hardest hit by increases in sales taxes.
"They're trying to manipulate the African-American vote in the Tampa community," Guetzloe said. "That is outrageous. It should be unacceptable to target demographic groups like that."
According to a 2009 study, 48 percent of HART riders are black.
In a statement attacking the HART promotion, Guetzloe said: "I suppose the modern day equivalent of offering 40 acres and a mule has been translated into free rides to the polls."
"Forty acres and a mule" refers to the practice of offering farmland to freed slaves.
Stokes, formerly head of the Hillsborough County NAACP, called that statement racist.
"How does he equate the two?" Stokes asked. "It's amazing. This is a good idea to increase voter participation. We need voters. I don't care what they vote for. We just need people to vote."
Guetzloe defended the statement.
"It's historical," he said. "It's not racist at all."
Janet Zink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3401.