Half-cent transit plan divides Democrats in Hillsborough commission race

Published Jul. 19, 2015

TAMPA — Hillsborough County's failed 2010 ballot referendum to raise the sales tax by a penny to pay for transportation improvements was a litmus test of sorts for local Republican candidates.

Four of the county's five sitting Republican commissioners were candidates in 2010 and all four opposed the referendum at the time. The fifth, Commissioner Stacy White, campaigned against new taxes for transit in 2014 en route to winning his deeply conservative east Hillsborough district.

As Hillsborough County prepares to ask voters to raise taxes for transportation again in 2016 — this time by a half-cent — the debate promises to divide Democrats as well.

But for them, the question will be: Is the county asking for enough?

"My position is it's not enough," said Tom Scott, a former Democratic county commissioner and Tampa city council member who is running for county commissioner again in District 6.

"All three previous reports and boards I served on were pushing and advocating that you go for the 1-cent for light rail, mass transit and all that," Scott added. "Now, you come back and want a referendum for a half-cent and say it will be adequate.

"So were the reports wrong then, or are they wrong now?"

Scott is one of three Democratic candidates vying for Commissioner Kevin Beckner's countywide seat, the most active commission race so far. Former Hillsborough County Democratic Party chairwoman Pat Kemp and Tampa lawyer Brian Willis are also running.

A half-cent sales tax increase is projected to bring in $3.5 billion before it sunsets in 30 years. That's considerably less than the $9 billion in transportation improvements that consultants said the county will need. About one-third of the $3.5 billion would go to transit. The rest would pay to build and maintain roads and make bike and pedestrian improvements.

Unlike Scott, Willis said he believes Hillsborough is on the right path. Willis is the co-founder of Connect Tampa Bay, a group that has advocated for smarter transit solutions. He said transportation is the No. 1 issue he hears about from voters.

"I'm optimistic about the direction it's heading," Willis said. "What I'm seeing is there are needs everywhere across this county and if it's a plan that allows the city of Tampa to build rail and address mass transit needs while allowing the county to go forward with its needs, that's going to be a good plan."

Kemp, meanwhile, is not weighing in yet, though she said she's "somewhat disappointed by the commitment to transit" in the half-cent proposal.

Surprisingly, Kemp said she found herself agreeing with White, the commissioner most skeptical of a sales tax hike, when it comes to transportation impact fees for developers. White has advocated a shift toward mobility fees that incentivize developers to focus on high-density areas by making it more expensive to build in rural areas.

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"I agree with him 100 percent on what we need to do in terms of growth management," Kemp said.

One traditionally Democratic constituency, the Tampa Bay Sierra Club, has thrown some shade at the county's proposal, though it is reserving judgement at this point. The Sierra Club has, however, proposed a 5 percent gas tax to pay for road maintenance.

Willis didn't agree with that.

"On one hand they're supporting transit but the tea party has been one of the biggest advocates for road spending," Willis said. "The Sierra Club has moved toward the tea party of raising taxes to pay for roads first which I think is a bad idea."

If a half-cent is the chosen route, Scott said he'll propose other solutions on the campaign trail to raise more money for transportation, though he wouldn't elaborate how just yet.

"A half a loaf is better than no loaf," he said. "We'll take the half-cent in order to get something done."

Contact Steve Contorno at Follow @scontorno.