The Tampa City Council ceded the high ground Thursday as it moved toward banning panhandling on major city streets. All that will do is move the problem elsewhere, as Tampa drivers know well by now. St. Petersburg's panhandling ban has contributed to an increase in the number of people asking for money along Tampa city streets. These are simplistic responses to a far more complicated situation that will take more brainstorming and revenue to address.
Until Thursday, the City Council had held firm against demands from neighborhood groups seeking a panhandling ban similar to St. Petersburg's. But the willingness to stand on principle became shakier the closer the calendar moved toward March 1 elections. Council member Mary Mulhern, who is seeking re-election, changed her vote Thursday to side with a 4-3 majority that includes council Chairman Tom Scott, a candidate for mayor. It may make for pragmatic politics, but banning panhandling continues to be bad public policy and diminishes free speech.
The proposal from Scott that was embraced by the council would ban panhandling along major city roads such as Dale Mabry Highway, Bruce B. Downs and Busch boulevards, and Fletcher and Fowler avenues. It does not affect only panhandling. The St. Petersburg Times has a financial issue, because the ban would bar street sales of the newspaper along those busy roads. Firefighters and other groups also could no longer solicit charitable donations along those streets.
At the least, the city should delay action until a committee of city, county and law enforcement officials completes its study of whether to propose a countywide ban and how such a ban might be more limited in scope. If the City Council insists on pursuing this quick-fix approach at its Feb. 3 meeting, it will be all about politics, not public safety. There still will be homeless people struggling to survive without much money or access to mental health care or job training. St. Petersburg helped create this situation, and Tampa would merely pass the problem down the line.