Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Opinion

Rejecting federal aid is a false economy

Jason Sager doesn't want to saddle children with the federal debt. Instead, he wants local residents to keep absorbing a different deficit.

Sager, the ex-congressional candidate now running for County Commission, sent a statement to journalists this week critical of Hernando's mass transit. Specifically, Sager complained after a 4-1 commission vote to expand THE Bus to better serve college students, the poor, elderly and others without reliable transportation. The commission – with Sager's fellow tea partier, Wayne Dukes, dissenting without a public explanation – wisely saw the wisdom of investing $11,400 from its transportation trust fund to add routes and shorten the wait time between buses.

That is the same trust fund the county tapped to help finance the $15 million dredging of the Hernando Beach Channel in Dukes' own neighborhood. Dukes, the commission chairman, should elaborate on why it's okay to take $500,000 from the trust fund, built upon gasoline and property taxes, to help affluent sailors and commercial boaters, but not worth an $11,400 withdrawal for low-income bus passengers.

Sager was more than willing to offer his own elaboration a day later when he labeled THE Bus ''a large burden on the taxpayers of Hernando County and is one that no longer can be afforded.'' Among other things, Sager called it an irresponsible addition to the federal debt to be passed on to future generations. (Three quarters of the cost of the transit improvements come from federal and state aid.)

"Hernando County should only rely on projects funded by and affordable to the citizens of Hernando County to ensure our fiscal stability,'' Sager said in his statement.

It is myopic political pabulum. Under such logic, the county would have to send back the new control tower at the Hernando County Airport and reject the $87 million the Florida Department of Transportation intends to spend repaving and widening Cortez Boulevard (State Road 50). Both are considered keys to future economic development in the county. Unless, of course, the favored economic strategy is a continuation of tract housing construction and the low-wage service-sector jobs that accompany it.

Even Dukes isn't that irrational. After initial concerns, he acquiesced and voted for the tower and, in a September land-use vote, touted the soon-to-be improved SR 50 as an essential business corridor for Hernando County.

The misinformed might suggest that state, not federal, dollars will improve SR 50, but that is incorrect. Nearly 38 percent of Florida's $5.3 billion transportation trust fund in 2011 came from the U.S. government. That's more than $2 billion in federal aid, the initial source of which is the motorists who pay the 18.4 cents a gallon in federal gas tax every time they fill up the tank. That would be every driver in Hernando County. Those buying diesel pay roughly one-third more.

Here is why Sager's position fuels a different sort of deficit: Floridians send more to Washington than they get in return. According to 2009 data, Florida received 91 cents for every dollar contributed to the federal highway account and just 74 cents for each dollar sent to the mass transit account. Since the federal fund's inception in 1956, Floridians have contributed $5 billion to other states' highway projects, according to the state DOT.

Incidentally, this isn't exclusive to transportation. Florida is a donor state when it comes to education, Medicaid and other services. A 2011 Florida TaxWatch report said Florida, the nation's fourth-largest state, ranked 33rd in federal money received per taxes paid. Collecting grants at the same rate as the national average would bring $3 billion more to the state annually.

Parking THE Bus means that gap will just get bigger in Hernando County since the mass transit aid will be directed elsewhere. It's not like federal fuel taxes, collected by gas stations in Hernando, will shrink accordingly. Sager, running for the commission seat held by incumbent John Druzbick, cannot change federal tax policies from the commission dais in Brooksville.

We'll just keep paying the same federal gasoline taxes from which other locales will benefit. It seems like this Tea Party express is destined for bumper-to-bumper congestion.

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