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Daniel Ruth

Ask voters about a tax? For shame!

This is the problem you get when you try to serve as a 21st century politician for a populace who still believes the steam engine is a passing fad.

It also explains once again why I would make a horrible elected official. The temptation to suggest to constituents that they can go … well, you fill in the blank, would be too great to resist.

A few days ago, the Hillsborough County Commission voted 5-2 to approve proceeding with a ballot measure asking voters if they would accept a 1-cent sales tax increase to pay for a light rail system, expand bus service and improve roads. Oh the Marxist Material Dialectic of it all!

This wasn't a vote to turn over the Sudetenland to Germany, or reinstitute slavery, or legalize prostitution. This was simply a county commission asking the public if they would like to have a real grown-up, adult, big boy place to live.

Complicating the public ire was the fact three Republican commissioners — Rose Ferlita, Mark Sharpe and Ken Hagan, folks you would not find fighting over the remote control to tune into The Rachel Maddow Show — voted to approve the ballot item.

And for the Roundhead wing of the local GOP, this was high political treason akin to Gov. Charlie Crist being seen publicly on the same dais with the president of the United States. Avert your eyes!

Where does this sort of heresy end? The next thing you know, Ferlita, Sharpe and Hagan might start undermining personal freedom and liberty by advocating traffic signals.

Threats to work tirelessly to end their political careers were launched. The dreaded label RINO (Republican In Name Only) was attached to the names of the GOP apostates. Ralph Hughes, the late conservative power broker who collected county commissioners as his own personal lawn jockeys, could be heard grumbling from the grave.

How should we regard all of this foaming at the 19th hole grill room outrage? Spats with pitchforks?

The underlying presumption here is that by voting to ask the body politic if they want to be taxed to pay for a public works program, the three Republican commissioners are in fact supporting a tax increase. But isn't this exactly what that whole liberal no-taxation-without-representation notion was about?

The last time the public was asked in a significant way if they wanted to tax themselves to pay for stuff was the Community Investment Tax initiative back in 1996, which was approved and led to the construction of Hellooooooo Sucker! Stadium for Malcolm Glazer and his tots. The dubious economic theory at play with the CIT was that the village needed to retain the Bucs because every time Warren Sapp broke wind in Tampa Palms a Mercedes-Benz was sold in Ruskin.

But transportation issues are some of the most vexing of political dilemmas for elected glad-handers, who tend to prefer votes providing immediate gratification — no to anything remotely associated with sex, for example, yes to real estate developers.

The problems with transportation projects are: A) they cost a bazillion dollars give or take a bazillion here and a bazillion there, and B) they provide no ego boost — by the time they are finally completed, all the folks who voted yes are either dead or forgotten. The effort winds up being named after something noble like veterans or a beloved football player who never lifted a shovel to build the darn thing.

Here is the dirty little secret no politician — most notably the three county commission Martin Luthers of light rail — will ever acknowledge.

To create a light rail system throughout Hillsborough County will involve cost overruns, long construction delays, incredible incompetence, no shortage of the occasional greased palm, insider deals, cronyism, nepotism and all manner of civic embarrassments we haven't even thought of yet.

After all, this is Hillsborough County. Political hanky-panky may not have been born here, but at least we were in the delivery room.

It's a horrible political conundrum. If this region ever hopes to grow and compete economically, it needs a state-of-the-art, multifaceted transportation system. And to accomplish that will require surviving a generation of costly ineptitude rivaling the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

And to accomplish that requires three Republican county commissioners running afoul of the clucking, harrumphing, hand-wringing, fretting neo-neo-neo-conservative Baathist wing of the party, folks who are still reserving judgment on the efficacy of the interstate highway system.

Some have suggested Ferlita, Hagan and Sharpe have written their political obituaries by voting to allow the public to have a say in its future. Perhaps. But no one ever said the road of good intentions was paved with fairness — or rationality.

Ask voters about a tax? For shame! 12/17/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 17, 2009 6:06pm]
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