Transit activists ready to put transportation tax on the ballot if Hillsborough commissioners won't

Published May 15, 2016

TAMPA — Transportation activists have a Hail Mary ready in their back pocket if Hillsborough County commissioners don't put a sales tax increase on the November ballot:

They can try to get it there themselves.

There's already chatter about a petition drive to collect signatures for a referendum that would ask Hillsborough voters to raise the sales tax by a half cent for transportation projects.

The effort won't go forward if commissioners approve the latest iteration of the Go Hills-borough transportation initiative: a half-cent sales tax hike for a duration of 15 years. A vote is tentatively scheduled for June 9.

But people are watching closely and keeping open the option to amend the county charter by petition, said Kevin Thurman, executive director of the pro-transit Connect Tampa Bay.

"There's business interest and people who I know want to make sure that we can fix our transportation problems, and if they're interested in funding a campaign, I'll do it," Thurman said. "I've already gotten at least a couple dozen requests from people on how to do it."

In April, Hillsborough commissioners voted 4-3 against a proposal to raise the sales tax from 7 percent to 7.5 percent for a duration of 30 years to pay for much-needed road work and transit projects. Shortly after, they killed off a 20-year surcharge. The measure was thought to be dead.

But in a surprise 5-2 vote last week, the commission advanced a 15-year, half-cent sales tax increase. Each year of the tax would raise approximately $117.5 million for transportation infrastructure.

Two commissioners who voted against Go Hillsborough in April, Victor Crist and Al Higginbotham, approved the public hearing for the 15-year option. But neither committed to supporting it in June.

If that option is shot down, then canvassers are likely to go back to asking for a 30-year tax.

It won't be an easy turnaround. Organizers must collect signatures from registered voters equal to 8 percent of the votes cast in the preceding presidential election. That's 43,611 John Hancocks.

Petitioners typically have six months to collect the signatures necessary to amend the county charter. But if petitioners wait until the commission votes, canvassing can't start until June 10.

The Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections needs the petitions for 30 days to verify all the signatures before the Aug. 30 primary election. That means they need to be finalized and turned in by the end of July, giving organizers just over seven weeks to make it happen.

It will also take a lot of money. An undertaking like a petition drive typically requires a private canvassing company that charges by the signature. Costs can escalate well into six figures.

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Thurman thinks it's doable.

"We've built a large network and a progressive business community. We've built that alliance over time," Thurman said. "We have zero doubt that we can mobilize enough people and the resources to be able to get the signatures in time."

Tampa lawyer Ron Weaver, who has actively lobbied for the commission to approve a ballot referendum, said a petition drive continues to be discussed.

"It's one of the five ways home," he said.

And there are benefits to going that route. For one, Weaver said, a petition drive would create a list of supporters who can be easily contacted and mobilized to vote for the referendum in November. It also helps build up grassroots support for a transportation initiative during the summer, when people are typically less politically engaged.

But it's still not the most ideal scenario, Weaver said.

"If those commissioners say we're not going to do it and we can't get four of us to put it on the ballot, that gives fodder to the anti's," Weaver said. "They can say the commission didn't even want to put it on the ballot.

"If it's the only way, we'll get the signatures," he said. "But we want the commissioners behind this."

Contact Steve Contorno at Follow @scontorno.