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History isn't on the side of sales-tax vote

Sometimes in politics, it's hard to figure out how they come up with the conventional wisdom.

When Hillsborough County elected officials were looking for a way to pay for a new football stadium for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, for example, they finally settled on an increase in the local sales tax.

That's because conventional wisdom said jacking up property taxes was off-limits. Asking debt-laden homeowners to help an NFL team with its own housing problem would be political suicide, in the words of Hillsborough County Commissioner Joe Chillura.

Instead, adding half a percent to the prices of color televisions and takeout pizzas was seen as the best way to do a tough job.

But the funny thing is this: Five times in the past 20 years, Hillsborough voters have approved referendums to raise property taxes. They voted for a number of tightly focused projects: to build jails, buy buses, promote children's welfare and preserve environmentally sensitive land.

During that same period, voters rejected all four of the sales-tax packages put before them _ including omnibus public works packages in 1982 and 1989 and tax increases last year for schools and public safety.

So why have officials such as Chillura, who says he wants to see the Bucs stay in Tampa, cast their lot with another multipurpose sales-tax referendum in September?

Observers offer several answers.

It was clear, even in the minds of staunch Bucs supporters, that a Bucs tax would never succeed by itself at the polls.

Some surveys have shown that sales taxes are perceived as being less burdensome than property taxes. What's more, Hillsborough's countywide tax rate of $7.9048 dollars per $1,000 of assessed property value is close to the statewide cap of $10.

And the sales tax could be sold to homeowners with the idea that renters and tourists would help carry the burden.

But perhaps the best reason why officials haven't tried to repeat the property-tax victories of the 1980s is that, simply, times have changed. State lottery proceeds that were promised to education were never delivered. Public trust has never been the same.

"It has been a hard time passing anything since," said Susan MacManus, a professor of government at the University of South Florida who has participated in extensive polling of the Hillsborough electorate. "People wonder, "Is this one going to be any different?' "

Not one bit _ if voters view the projects funded by Chillura's "Community Investment Tax" as a bureaucratic wish list, wrapped around a freebie for an NFL owner.

There is, however, a way to combat that skepticism, according to Mary Repper, a veteran Tampa Bay political consultant. Repper thinks voters could be persuaded to approve the half-cent sales tax increase, which would raise $2.7-billion over 30 years for school construction, public safety, public works and the football stadium. In fact, Repper said she would like to participate in the campaign.

But what will be absolutely necessary, Repper said, is for elected officials to make their case for the county's pressing needs in person, and with details.

"If (Tampa Mayor) Dick Greco and (Hillsborough Administrator) Dan Kleman and (school Superintendent) Earl Lennard unite . . . if they can unite the community, this stands a very good chance," Repper said.

Leaders have to let residents know _ very specifically _ how the half-cent sales tax would help them, Repper said. Pinellas County voters passed a full-cent tax increase for infrastructure in 1989 after mailings that told some individual neighborhoods what they would get from the money, down to the traffic light. Hillsborough has announced no plans for a similar mailing.

In some ways, the old property tax increases were a lot easier to sell to voters. Property taxes are deductible on federal income tax returns. And the local increases could be for very small amounts, tailored specifically to a need. The current Hillsborough jail bonds levy, for example, costs only 2.2 cents per $1,000 of property value.

Sales tax increases, on the other hand, come in only two clunky sizes, half a cent and a whole cent, by order of the state Legislature. Officials distribute the proceeds among as many of their highest-priority projects as they can. Sales taxes are harder to keep track of and aren't tax-deductible.

But no amount of strategizing, no amount of information, will make any difference if voters aren't paying attention, MacManus said. If, because of sheer overexposure to the Bucs stadium drive for a year and a half, they have a bad case of the Glazer Glaze, no pitch will register.

Voter turnout for the Sept. 3 referendum promises to be an unpredictable and important factor. As a rule, primary voters tend to be the best informed, Repper said _ and the least numerous.

The last countywide property tax referendum, in 1990, was approved in an October runoff, in a non-presidential election year. The tally was 37,000 to 14,000 _ a turnout of about 15 percent.

But, Repper said, two kinds of fanatical voters are expected to appear in droves for the September vote: Bucs stadium supporters and anti-tax campaigners. They could drive the turnout as high as 40 percent to 50 percent. And nobody knows what other votes they will cast as soon as they finish with the Bucs vote.

"They may just close their eyes and start punching names," Repper said.