Carlton: Barely alive, a tax for transportation would give voters, not politicians, a say

Published May 14, 2016

It lives.

Amazingly, against all odds, the chance that voters could get to decide for themselves on a sales tax to pay for our transportation needs — killed last month in a late-night 4-3 Hillsborough County Commission vote — has risen for a last, feeble gasp.

And you thought this one was done, given all it has been through: previous failed tax referendums on both sides of the bay. The latest incarnation, Go Hillsborough, accused of being short on specifics and leadership. The original penny-tax idea weakened to a half-cent. A hint of a scandal that blew away into nothing.

And worst of all, politicians who seemed so cowed by powerful anti-tax activists that they would not even agree to put it on the November ballot for you to decide for yourself whether you were willing to pay for this.

That's an important distinction that bears repeating: Your elected officials were not being asked to make a politically dicey decision on whether a new tax was painful but necessary or an unwarranted burden on taxpayers — though if they were, hard choices are what you pay them for. No, they were only being asked to put the decision on the November ballot for you, the voter, to make.

Once more with feeling: For you to decide for yourself.

So the show looked to be over with that big no vote last month. But we do like our political theater around here.

At a meeting this week, Commissioner Ken Hagan went through some not-particularly-doable alternative options to pay for transit improvements. One by one, those "options" fell away and you sensed something afoot. Anti-tax Commissioner Sandy Murman saw it coming but, pardon the pun, could not stop the train bearing down. Suddenly, they were back to the idea of a referendum whose death they had already witnessed — this time, for a 15-year half-cent tax potentially more politically palatable than the previous 30- and 20-year options.

It is interesting to note that two previously no-voting commissioners —Victor Crist, who flirted with the idea of progress before his swing vote killed it, and Al Higginbotham, who once indicated he'd support it and later didn't — both voted to let the new 15-year version go to at least a public hearing.

It is life support, I know. But it's something.

Here's a theory on why political minds might just be swayed this time. This same commission recently socked developers with increased mobility fees for growth and construction, and those fees could go way higher if there's no new sales tax for transportation. Developers have been known to have some influence with politicians, too.

About that big meeting last month. Before commissioners killed the transit referendum, do you suppose they noticed that the dozens of citizens who showed up to be heard were pretty much evenly divided for and against it?

Followup question: Wouldn't that tell commissioners that there's a chance that a majority of the people who elected them might just want this?

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Maybe that's why the antitax lobby would want it killed before you, the voter, got your say either way.

Contact Sue Carlton at