Monday, May 21, 2018
Opinion

Column: Higher tax push runs out of gas in Pasco

Pasco County's ill-timed proposal to increase the local option gasoline tax ended late Tuesday night when commissioners couldn't muster a four-vote majority for approval. Instead, the county will delay some future road-building projects and use that money to maintain the existing highway network.

If you're wondering who to thank/blame for the decision, here is a rundown of the people and circumstances that converged to kill the tax hike:

• Henry Wilson. The swing vote fell to the weakest commissioner who faces re-election next year. Wilson acknowledged in August that he couldn't contribute to a separate debate over the property tax rate because he hadn't read the proposed county budget presented to him six weeks earlier. When you're slow to do your homework, it's easy to be manipulated by whatever interest makes the loudest noise right before the vote.

• Jack Mariano. He sided with Wilson. Unlike the rest of the board, however, Mariano pushed for options, particularly on the politically sensitive issue of raising taxes because other property owners declined to pay for repaving their neighborhood streets. At Mariano's urging, the county decided to try to become a better collection agency to recoup the $7 million due its paving accounts.

It's the kind of governing that should precede any push for higher taxes: Look for savings elsewhere and collect what you're already owed.

• Shawn Foster. He symbolizes just the opposite form of governing. Foster helped convince commissioners that they needed to maintain a lobbying presence in Tallahassee even though current and past members of Pasco's legislative delegation publicly questioned the wisdom of that spending. On the day of the gas tax vote, board members voted unanimously to hire Foster, a Trinity resident. He is familiar to them in his civic roles as chairman of the United Way of Pasco and former congressional aide, and in his political role as a campaign consultant. Commissioner Kathryn Starkey's campaign paid Foster and his firm, Sunrise Consulting, $55,000 for his work on her 2012 election effort.

The lobbyist contract is largely financed with gas tax revenue, and Foster's hiring showed the board's disinterest in cutting costs before asking the public to pay higher taxes.

• James Mathieu. The chairman of the Pasco Republican Executive Committee is running for the vacant House District 36 seat formerly held by Tax Collector Mike Fasano. The local party didn't spend money on Mathieu's House campaign, but it did authorize an anti-gas tax publicity push. That allowed Mathieu to become the public face of the party's commercials with the corresponding political benefit of building his own image as a tax fighter.

• Penny for Pasco. Just 10 months ago, voters agreed to extend the penny-on-the-dollar sales tax through Dec. 31, 2023, which will generate more than half a billion dollars in government and school district revenue. The county's projected share is $227 million, and the commission has allocated a combined 60 percent, $136 million, for transportation and economic development.

Despite the coming windfall, the county's private business interests argued the higher gasoline tax, and its $8 million in annual revenue, was needed to enhance economic development via better-maintained roads. Nobody was buying it.

Here's a thought. If all this looming economic development ever comes to fruition (Raymond James Financial Services, T. Rowe Price, etc. etc.), couldn't the county use some of the new property tax revenue for road maintenance instead of relying so heavily on gas taxes?

• Gov. Rick Scott. The commission's vote on the proposed gas tax increase coincided with the governor's tour to give away $500 million from next year's state budget in reduced taxes and fees. Can you say mixed signals?

• John Q. Public. Private wealth has diminished since 2008 and property values have declined, yet the cost of groceries, electricity, water and, most of all, homeowners insurance, have moved in the opposite direction. The price of gasoline is a moving target. It peaked at more than $4 a gallon in the summer of 2008 but dropped to roughly half that six months later.

On the day of the vote, the price of regular unleaded gasoline varied from $3.39 to $3.44 per gallon at Pasco County locations. In that regard, you could argue the gasoline tax increase would go largely unnoticed at the pumps.

More legitimate, however, is this argument: A struggling public was in no mood for higher gas costs on top of all the other escalating household expenses.

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