Monday, September 24, 2018
Opinion

Joe Henderson: When it comes to Hillsborough’s needs, t-a-x is not a four-letter word but g-r-o-w is

Florida lawmakers – well, some of them – love to shout to the heavens that this is a low-tax state. If they could rewrite the rules of language to make "tax" a four-letter word, it would be mandatory to teach it that way in public school classrooms.

Alas, while they are spreading confetti to celebrate all those tax reductions, we are seeing the cost to the public good when revenues sink too low. In a state like this one experiencing runaway growth, the low-tax zeal can (and does) have a bad effect in places where the public kind of needs to be fully operational — in this case, transportation and public schools.

RELATED: School Board to place sales tax hike on November ballot

Both areas need lots more money to meet demand, and there haven’t been many golden gifts from Tallahassee to meet that. So, something extraordinary has occurred. In just the last few weeks, those separate but equally important areas of our community have decided to ask Hillsborough County voters to approve sales tax increases in November.

The All For Transportation group succeeded in a petition drive to put the issue right in front of voters, asking them to pass a 30-year, one-cent-per-dollar sales hike that will fund various transportation needs throughout the county.

While the "No How, No Way, Not One Thin Dime" crowd was absorbing that, the School Board charged ahead with a plan to ask voters for a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for, well, lots of needs.

It’s a bold strategy, to say the least.

The transportation initiative already faced a tough route to approval, given how fierce the opposition here can be toward any sort of tax increase. Opponents will pull out the usual talking points and keep repeating them until Election Day — financial mismanagement, why should we trust you, they just want a fancy-schmanzy rail system and won’t admit it, yada, yada, and, furthermore, yada.

But now, that campaign will also compete in voters’ minds with the image of broken air conditioners in schools, crumbling buildings, grumpy teachers fed up with substandard pay — not that any of that will ease the ferocity of the opposition.

Oops, I used a word neither side wants to hear — "compete."

The transportation folks say they aren’t trying to talk down the dire needs of the public schools here. It’s vice versa from school officials.

Someone entering the voting booth is likely to see things differently, depending whether they have school-aged children or are fed up with being struck in traffic jams every day — or both.

Cindy Stuart was first elected to the School Board in 2012. She will be the longest-serving member of that body after April Griffin and Susan Valdes leave in November.

"In terms of funding from the state, I’ve seen it go from bad to worse in the time I’ve been here," Stuart said. "People tell us, ‘Go to Tallahassee and fight for funding.’ We do fight, but we can’t keep up with the growth. We have to have more money."

I suppose the Legislature could always authorize building a wall along the Georgia and Alabama borders to stop people from moving here and forcing the state to build more schools.

That was a joke, by the way, just in case any lawmaker right now is thinking, "Hmmm…."

One thing we know about the opposition, though: It is always mobilized and motivated to say no to that four-letter word spelled t-a-x.

There was some encouraging news from Tuesday’s primary election night. Voters in several areas of the state approved tax hikes or extensions to pay for school needs, including teacher salaries.

Of course, those voters didn’t have to consider a transportation tax request at the same time, and that’s where we come in.

Schools are expensive. Transportation is expensive.

There isn’t enough money to go around, and people just keep coming here.

Something’s gotta give.

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