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Time changes support for penny tax

In 1989, the vote on the Penny for Pinellas amounted to little more than a coin toss, with fewer than 400 votes saving the 1-percent sales tax referendum from defeat.

On the second try, county officials hit the jackpot, drawing a surprisingly strong 65 percent of the vote in Tuesday's election, with support throughout the county.

"I thought it would pass, but I thought it would be a squeaker," said St. Petersburg City Council member Beatrice Griswold. "I didn't realize it would be a landslide.

Voters approved the first 10 years of the tax in 1989. It would have expired Feb. 1, 2000, had voters not approved the renewal through 2010.

Tuesday, there were only five out of about 350 precincts in Pinellas where the majority of voters were against extending the 1-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax.

"It certainly was an eye-opener," said Susan MacManus, University of South Florida political science professor. "It really goes counter to the trends we're seeing in other parts of the country and even the state."

The vote also was a reversal for voters in St. Petersburg, who overwhelmingly rejected the tax in 1989. It was saved by support from north Pinellas.

This time, only four of the 112 St. Petersburg precincts went against the tax.

"If that isn't a mandate, I don't know what a mandate is," said County Commissioner Bob Stewart. "This did turn out to be a vote of confidence in county government."

Coming on the heels of the arrest of a county commissioner on a cocaine charge, as well as failed tax referendums in East Lake and for St. Petersburg Junior College, the tax in some ways seemed ill-timed.

But other factors were in its favor:

No new taxes. Residents have become accustomed to paying 7 percent sales tax during the past seven years, so renewing it won't take a larger bite out of their wallets.

"This clearly demonstrates that the first round of a tax is where you have to defeat it," said USF professor Darryl Paulson, who opposed the tax.

Paulson and MacManus said the outcome wasn't so much a vote of confidence for government as much as a fear that the government would raise property taxes without the penny. Voters liked the fact that about 35 percent of the money the tax will raise will come from tourists.

Picture perfect. The Bayside Bridge. The Pinellas Trail. The Criminal Justice Complex. Most of the projects the tax has helped pay for are tangible, and the county and cities were able to remind voters of exactly where the money went by placing "Penny for Pinellas at Work" signs in front of them.

"The county didn't have to show that people got $900-million worth of projects for $900-million worth of taxes," Paulson said. "They just had to show people pretty pictures of the projects it has helped fund."

Because the vote was so soon after the hard-fought referendum in Hillsborough to pass a half-cent sales tax to pay for, among other things, a new football stadium, MacManus said it was key that the Penny for Pinellas is going toward general infrastructure improvements.

"It wasn't going to a rich man with a football team," MacManus said. "Stadium and sports issues have really become a pariah in tax referendums all over the country."

Those soccer moms again. Pinellas has gotten younger since the tax first passed in 1989. That means more families and kids who will benefit from the swimming pools, recreation centers and ballfields the tax pays for.

"People can see all around them the positive effects the tax has had," said Polly Brannon of St. Petersburg, who has three children. Two of them play baseball at Fossil Park, which is scheduled for $1.2-million in improvements, paid for by the penny tax.

Disorganized opposition. The county government and the Penny PAC, a group of business people who supported the Penny for Pinellas, together spent almost $200,000 promoting the tax. But opponents never got organized.

"I really think that might have been a big part of it," said Agnes Tillerson of East Lake, who opposed the tax. "People would call and say, "Don't you have bumper stickers? Don't you have fliers?' and we didn't have any."