Sunday, September 23, 2018
Politics

Needs are great, but will Hillsborough voters go for two tax hikes at once?

TAMPA — Getting voters to raise their own taxes is never an easy ask, which explains why referendums in Hillsborough County are few and far between.

The most recent was a transportation plan that voters soundly rejected in 2010. Before that, the lure of a new Tampa Bay Buccaneers stadium helped push a half penny sales tax hike over the finish line in 1996.

Yet the upcoming general election ballot will include not one but two proposals to raise the sales tax — one for transportation and one for schools. That has some political leaders fearing both will go down to defeat and questioning why there wasn’t more collaboration between the two groups.

"I think the timing is not helpful, notwithstanding their dramatic needs," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, speaking of the School Board decision to add the second ballot measure. "I don’t know that this was as well thought out as it could have been."

Political experts contacted by the Tampa Bay Times were divided on whether the a second tax hike proposal might doom both.

It would have been "reasonable" for the School Board to hold off since All for Transportation was already on the ballot, said Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus of government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

PREVIOUS: Hillsborough voters set to decide on sales tax for transportation

The citizens group met a July deadline to collect more than 50,000 verified signatures to place before voters an initiative raising the sales tax one cent on the dollar for 30 years to pay for roads, buses and other transportation projects.

Then on Aug. 24, Hillsborough County School Board members approved a referendum for a half-cent, 10-year sales tax hike to fund technology and school repairs.

If both are approved, it would raise Hillsborough’s sales tax of 7 cents on the dollar to 8.5 cents — higher than any county currently levies. That will be a tough sell, Paulson said.

"It’s like the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing," he said. "With one item on the ballot, you clearly have a better shot than having two taxes."

But for Susan MacManus, a retired University of South Florida professor and political analyst, the two measure’s prospects hinge on whether taxation emerges as an issue in the two races expected to draw the most people to the polls — for governor and U.S. Senate. A surprise win last week in the Democratic primary for Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum may also help the chances for both proposals, MacManus said.

"The Gillum victory will draw younger people to the polls," she said. "They are more inclined to be in favor of better funding for issues like transportation."

• • •

Two sales tax hikes also appeared on the same Hillsborough ballot in 1995 when the county asked voters for a half penny to pay for law enforcement buildings and the school district sought a half penny for school improvements.

Both measures lost by about 20 percentage points.

PREVIOUS: Hillsborough School Board to place sales tax on November ballot

Still, All for Transportation is taking heart from last week’s primary election. Compared to the 2014 mid-term election, the number of ballots cast for Democrats — whose supporters are typically more likely to favor tax hikes — was 77 percent higher in bellwether countywide commission races.

The emergence of All for Transportation reflected frustration at the failure of local politicians to tackle the county’s growing traffic congestion and threadbare bus network. Business leaders say the community needs to fix them to attract new investment.

A long-range transportation plan produced by the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization identified $9 billion in transportation needs, including roads, buses and smart traffic signals. The county has identified more than $4 billion in unfunded road projects alone.

Leaders of All For Transportation built their proposal on the MPO plan.

They said they met with School Board members, the teachers union and assistant superintendent Chris Farkas.

What they heard was that the district had no plans to place a measure on the November ballot. School officials say they believed a required state audit couldn’t be finished in time.

Now that both measures are headed for the ballot, transportation advocates say they hope to work with education leaders and avoid direct competition.

"I don’t think one hurts the other," said transportation group member Christina Barker. "We’ve been having a lot of positive communication, discussing ways we can work together and discussing how both of these effort can win and we believe both can win."

• • •

In the school district, there had been talk of a referendum for years. School Board member Lynn Gray began pushing for one shortly after she was elected to an at-large seat in 2016.

Officials estimate the district has $3 billion or more in outstanding mortgage debt, new school construction needs and deferred maintenance. They say inadequate funding from Tallahassee is forcing them to seek a new revenue source at the local level.

Superintendent Jeff Eakins resisted, saying he needed time to get spending under control and earn the confidence of the community. Other board members, mainly April Griffin, agreed.

About a year ago, that position began to crack. Members Cindy Stuart and Sally Harris traveled to Orange County for a meeting with members of the School Board there to learn how they had succeeded in passing tax referendums.

Upon their return, Stuart took her concerns to Eakins.

"I told him the problems we are having with air conditioning and maintenance keep getting bigger," she said. "I kind of got sick of going to Tallahassee and banging my head against the wall, having no one understand."

In the spring, the Legislature passed a law requiring the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, or OPPAGA, to conduct a performance audit before any school district or county agency could place a sales tax referendum on the ballot.

Eakins told the board on May 15 that he would explore options for a referendum. But OPPAGA indicated the required audit would take roughly six months, plus another two to post the results.

The remedy: Plan for a referendum in March.

• • •

What school leaders did not anticipate was that in July, OPPAGA agreed to audit both the county transportation department and Hillsborough Area Regional Transit authority by Sept. 6, enabling the All For Transportation group to meet its deadline for November.

That raised the question: If transportation could get a fast-tracked OPPAGA audit, couldn’t the school district get one as well?

In a heated board discussion on Aug. 24, Stuart pushed for a half-penny November measure, even though it would mean asking the public to pay 8.5 cents if both measures pass.

As a member of the MPO, Stuart said she’s trying to make the best of the situation despite her disappointment in the All for Transportation group.

"My goal is not to speak ill of them. Some of them are friends of mine," she said. "I know the transportation needs as well. But my elected official position is to promote education."

State law restricts using a transportation surtax for any other purpose. Some education advocates wonder why the transportation group couldn’t be content with a half cent.

"They went for a whole penny and for 30 years," said Melissa Erickson, founder of the grassroots Alliance for Public Schools. "That’s a long time for kids to wait for air conditioning."

But Barker said Hillsborough’s transportation woes are so bad that a half penny couldn’t reduce congestion and provide transportation across such a large county.

"If you’re going to ask the people to make an investment in their community, they’re going to need to see results," she said.

During the campaign for the successful 1996 referendum known as the Community Investment Tax, city, county and school leaders joined forces with the sports community to promote it. The money supported construction of Raymond James Stadium, as well as schools and public works projects.

Some voiced resistance about joining forces with the football organization, recalled Connie Milito, the school district’s governmental affairs chief. But the Bucs helped finance the campaign and cooperation turned out to be the right move.

This time, there is no partnership.

"It’s a risk either way," Milito said. "And to me, the good part is that transportation helped us by pushing for November — because we weren’t sure it could happen."

Contact Christopher O’Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times. Contact Marlene Sokol at [email protected] or (813) 226-3356. Follow @MarleneSokol

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