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Here's how six Hillsborough County commission candidates want to pay for critical transportation

Traffic congests State Road 60 west of Providence Road in Brandon. Candidates for County Commission District 6 are divided on whether a sales tax increase should pay for transportation improvements.
Published Jul. 30, 2016

TAMPA — Among Hillsborough County's six — count 'em, six — candidates vying for the open District 6 commissioner seat, all say transportation is one of the biggest issues facing the region.

Ask them how to fix it, though, and the four Democrats and two Republicans in the race have six different answers.

Whoever wins the job will be replacing Democratic Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who supports raising the sales tax by a half cent to pay for much-needed road work and transit projects. The vote to send it to a referendum this fall failed on a 4-3 vote twice, though, and now commissioners are back at the drawing board to replace the $117 million a year it would have raised.

That means Beckner's successor will likely be thrown into the debate from day one.

Republicans Tim Schock and Jim Norman both oppose any new taxes for transportation. But some Democrats still see reviving a sales tax increase as the best and only solution for satisfying the county's maintenance backlog and future needs as Hillsborough continues its rapid population growth.

John Dicks, former mayor of Plant City, said he believes he can find a fourth vote on the commission to support the half-cent increase and that as an east Hillsborough Democrat and longtime politician here, he's uniquely qualified to make the case to his new colleagues.

"It's all about finding their motivation," Dicks said.

But Tampa lawyer and transit activist Brian Willis said his faith in the commission to solve the funding issue eroded when he watched members punt away three years and more than $1 million of study on transportation solutions.

Willis last week unveiled a comprehensive transportation plan that includes a detailed strategy and map of proposed train, bus and ferry lines. He said he would lead a petition drive to force a sales tax increase onto the ballot in 2018 or 2020. He would also push Tallahassee to allow cities to hold their own sales tax referendums so they're not relying on counties that are often beholden to transit-averse constituents in suburban and rural areas.

"Unless you have some broader change on this commission, you're not going to be able to get a tax referendum through," Willis said. "But you can take it out of their hands."

Similarly, former Commissioner Tom Scott, a Democrat, said he doubts a referendum would pass a commission currently dominated by Republicans. Instead, he would push Gov. Rick Scott to adopt the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.

Then, most low-income Hillsborough residents could be shifted from the county's indigent care program to Medicaid. The money for the county program, which comes from a dedicated half-cent sales tax, could go for transportation.

Scott, though, has repeatedly rejected Medicaid expansion in Florida. Tom Scott said they can either wait out this Republican administration or put more pressure on him to act now.

"You need to get your legislation delegation on board with it," he said.

Democrat Pat Kemp, a former aide to U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor when she was on the County Commission, criticized the sales tax referendum this go around because she said the plan didn't have enough transit options. That put her on the opposite side of many Democrats and moderate business leaders.

But Kemp said she would back another attempt in 2020 if the next proposal incorporated more buses, trains, trolleys and ferries. She said the CSX railway lines up for sale should be considered immediately, as should raising the gas tax from 7 cents to 12 cents.

Kemp, Scott, Willis and Dicks will square off in the Aug. 30 primary.

On the Republican side, Schock, who owns a consulting company, and former commissioner Norman would look elsewhere for transportation revenues.

Norman believes Hillsborough should fight for a larger piece of a gaming compact under negotiation between Florida and the Seminole tribe and use that money to pay for transportation.

Under the existing agreement, the share Hillsborough receives is about $3 million a year. Norman said it should be much higher — as much as $75 million — since Hillsborough is home to one of the most lucrative casinos in the state, the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Tampa.

"You pick your fights and this is one we should pick to get to the table for a revenue stream that can help our citizens," Norman said.

Norman and Schock both see potential in a proposal from Commissioner Sandy Murman to create a countywide tax increment finance, or TIF, district. The commission is now debating whether to incorporate that plan as they consider next year's budget.

A TIF, though, as it is proposed, is a relatively untested idea. It is typically used with incentives to spur development in a specific part of a region. Growth in the tax base within the TIF district is then used to make improvements within the district.

A countywide TIF would essentially take a chunk of growth in the tax base here and turn it into a dedicated funding stream for transportation. County Administrator Mike Merrill has cautioned that it could leave other county departments underfunded or lead to cuts to vital services.

Schock would use the TIF money to build a 21st century transportation system that bypasses current transit infrastructure like light rail in favor of technologies that he believes will soon be online, like dedicated lanes for autonomous vehicles.

"I would not spend a dollar to lay a foot of new rail," he said.

Kemp has also enthusiastically embraced the TIF proposal from Murman, a Republican, as a way to start paying for transportation needs immediately.

"We need to be funding our transit system," Kemp said, "and we need to be doing it at a base that's higher."

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno.

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