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Tax for rail likely to unlock new sources of campaign cash for politicians

TAMPA — Serving on the board that oversees Hillsborough County's bus system is not the most glamorous or even most coveted assignment for local politicians.

That could change in a most lucrative way if powerful voices persuade voters to approve a tax raising billions of dollars and put the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit authority in charge of it.

The 10 politicians serving on such a board likely would be catapulted into a campaign cash raising realm not seen here before.

If voters agree in 2016 to a 1-cent sales tax to help pay for road and transportation projects including light rail, it will tap into new sources of political contributors — companies vying for rail contracts, developers looking to build stations, engineers hoping to be hired to do studies.

"You take a political board like that and put them in charge of these high-dollar projects and special interest money is going to start flowing," said Ken Roberts of Citizens Organized for Sound Transportation, who has opposed the idea of remaking the HART board. "It's a great formula for corruption."

A panel of local elected officials has already agreed to the concept of putting HART in charge of a broad transportation agenda, although details of its structure are under discussion and the HART board itself has not decided if it wants to change.

Elected officials currently comprise fewer than half the seats on the HART board. Under a proposal, the seven county commissioners and mayors of the county's three cities would all become directors. Two seats would remain gubernatorial appointees.

In making a case for the reorganization of HART, Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill argued that reconstituting the board with mostly elected officials would bring accountability for voters.

Merrill will pitch the governance proposal during a policy meeting at 1:30 p.m. today at the County Center.

According to a presentation made available in advance of the meeting, the reconstructed board would be responsible for a budget with resources exceeding $5 billion during the next 30 years.

"This level of funding requires direct accountability to voters, both to ensure approval of a sales tax and ongoing financial decisionmaking," the presentation reads. "The possible necessity to expand the operation and funding charter and authority of HART can best be achieved by elected officials."

Pinellas County, where voters will decide a similar sales tax-for transportation question in November, also plans on making its bus authority the agency overseeing projects, according to the Greenlight Pinellas plan. But unlike Hillsborough, the board of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority already is made up almost entirely of elected officials. Only two of its 15 members are required to be laypeople.

To be sure, if voters approve the sales tax in either county, special interest campaign money for mass transit is likely to start flowing. But transforming the HART board from mostly laypeople to mostly politicians would worsen its influence here, opponents say.

Experiences in Orlando, Missouri and Oregon — and Hillsborough's Public Transportation Commission — give a taste of what's possible.

The PTC board, made up of seven elected officials, can already tap into campaign contributions worth thousands of dollars from the taxi, limo and towing companies the agency regulates.

Leading up the 2012 election, for example, Hillsborough County Commissioner and current PTC Chairman Victor Crist received at least $8,000 in campaign donations from taxi, limo and towing companies. County Commissioner Ken Hagan received at least $7,000 in similar donations leading up to the 2010 election.

During the push to build the SunRail commuter line in Orlando, its relentless champion in Congress — U.S. Rep. John Mica — received major campaign contributions from contractors associated with the project, according to the New York Times. They included landowners hoping to get stations built nearby and employees of a law firm that lobbied for the project.

In St. Louis, interested business donated almost $100,000 in campaign cash to a state representative who was a key proponent of a controversial sales tax to raise money for road and bridge projects, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

And about $30,000 in political contributions rolled in at the last minute in a 2012 special election in Oregon over light rail, the Oregonian reported.

"It's a never-ending cycle, really," said Doug Guetzloe, founder of Ax the Tax, an Orlando-based political committee opposed to a tax raising money for light rail. "The pro-tax forces are always driven by the consultants, the ones who make the money. They, of course, fund the candidates, the committee, all the aspects. It's a clear conflict of interest."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2443. Follow @cljohnst.

. if you go

Transportation meeting today

The Policy Leadership Group, a panel of local elected officials, is expected to discuss the governance proposal for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit authority. No time will be made available for public comment, but residents are welcome to attend.

When: 1:30 p.m.

Where: County Center, second-floor boardroom, 601 E Kennedy Blvd., Tampa.

Tax for rail likely to unlock new sources of campaign cash for politicians 08/11/14 [Last modified: Monday, August 11, 2014 11:31pm]

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