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Bowen: Find a new ending to Pasco gas tax sequel

The summer sequels are upon us. Gas Tax 2 is about to dominate the conversation for the next three months.

Was it really just 12 months ago that we watched and listened to the thrilling debate, the political intrigue and the sort-of, maybe half-hearted acquiescence turn to thunderous opposition to appease the Republican Party loyalists? Mr. Smith Goes to Washington this was not.

The main plot is repeated in 2014, but with a twist borrowing heavily from the Reagan administration. Here's how it goes:

As they did a year ago, Pasco County commissioners are considering increasing the gasoline tax as much as five cents per gallon for transportation. In 2013, the money was intended for road and landscape maintenance, street lights and to replenish the account for neighborhood street repaving. It failed to gain the necessary four-vote majority when Commissioners Jack Mariano and Henry Wilson dissented. Absent the new money, commissioners reallocated existing gas tax dollars, effectively delaying future road construction, to handle the more immediate maintenance needs.

This year, the plan calls for earmarking $8 million (the equivalent of a nickle-per-gallon gas tax increase) for road construction and some extra dollars for maintenance. And here's where the commission harkened back to governing from the Reagan era. Last week, it budgeted the $8 million on the spending side of their budget without identifying the source of the revenue.

It's called the magic asterisk and and was famously revealed by David Stockman, budget director under President Reagan, in his 1986 memoir The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed.

Stockman detailed the administration's penchant for fudging its budget forecasts by adding an asterisk to indicate "Future savings to be identified.'' Except the cuts never came and deficit spending continued with the national debt nearly tripling during Reagan's eight years in office.

I've written previously about past Pasco commissions using this same tactic on this same topic. In 1995, a consultant recommended the county increase its gas tax by 5 cents a gallon to balance its long-range road-building plan. Unfortunately, the poorly timed pitch came just days after voters had overwhelmingly rejected a proposed new sales tax for school construction.

Commissioners had little stomach for blessing their own tax increase, but worried about a $42 million hole in the road plan. So, where would the new dollars come from?

"He (the consultant) doesn't need to know," a county staffer told the commission. "And you don't need to say."

Hocus pocus. They used their own magic asterisk and it is now being reapplied 19 years later. It's not the only familiar subplot in the summer of 2014.

During a workshop earlier this month, Commissioner Kathryn Starkey strongly supported the gas tax increase, calling it a "no-brainer.'' She also rebutted the hesitancy from Mariano and from Wilson, who faces an August primary opponent: She said she didn't see how they thought they had a choice.

Let's consider Starkey's own past choices. As a sitting School Board member and Republican candidate for the state Legislature in 2010, she cast the lone dissenting vote against a quarter-mill property tax increase to raise $5.2 million to plug a multimillion-dollar shortfall in the school budget. So, it's okay for her to consider political expediency amid an election campaign, but Wilson cannot?

(By the way, how come developers aren't being asked to kick in higher upfront mobility fees for commercial development? The county legal staff says an across-the-board increase won't work because residential mobility fees are near the legal limit.)

The is another parallel story line between 1995 and 2014. Even the doomsday rhetoric from the staff sounds familiar. Without revenue from higher gasoline or property taxes the county will have to delay or cancel future road construction projects. One of those that will get pushed off the long-range list is the extension of Collier Parkway north to Ehren Cutoff, which is considered a key route to move traffic to and from the Connerton development.

Nineteen years ago, amid the quest for $42 million in revenue, the staff said 19 roads wouldn't get built without the gas tax. Among the construction projects then facing the ax? The extension of Collier Parkway north to Ehren Cutoff.

This isn't a sequel. It's a rerun.

But there is a legitimate way to provide us with an alternate ending. Scratch the magic asterisk and the political deference to the commercial development community. Ask everyone to pony up a little more for roads, not just the gas-buying public.

Bowen: Find a new ending to Pasco gas tax sequel 06/19/14 [Last modified: Thursday, June 19, 2014 10:06am]
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