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Voting for transportation referendum is voting for a tax hike, Hillsborough commissioner warns

Published May 19, 2016

TAMPA — He's normally reserved and rarely confrontational, but on Wednesday Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White put his colleagues on notice over the transportation sales tax referendum.

"Support of this referendum is a support for a tax hike," White said.

The remark came as commissioners considered when to hold a public hearing on the latest iteration of their transportation initiative: a half-cent surcharge in the sales tax that would last for 15 years. In April, they voted 4-3 to kill tax hikes of 20 and 30 years.

They ultimately voted 6-1 Wednesday to meet June 9. White was the lone no vote. If it passes, it will go to voters on the November ballot.

White's comments drew a strong rebuke from several commissioners.

Commissioner Les Miller likened White's point of view to "suppressing the vote." A vote for Go Hillsborough, he said, is not for a sales tax hike. Rather, it was a vote to "let (residents) decide if they should tax themselves a half cent for 15 years."

Commissioner Al Higginbotham, undecided on the latest sales tax referendum and a "no" in April, pointed out that he voted against the 2010 transportation ballot initiative and said he took "exception" to White's comments.

Commissioner Victor Crist told White, "I love you, man" and said he was a "breath of fresh air" before knocking down White's logic.

"I know for me, I may vote one way up here and another way at the poll as a citizen," said Crist, who cast the deciding vote against the 20- and 30-year taxes last month.

While a majority of commissioners were united against White's comments and ultimately voted in favor of the public hearing next month, they remain split on the best path forward.

For example, Commissioner Sandy Murman said a gas tax increase was a "no-brainer" that needed to be considered, and that the county lacked a modern, technology-based transit plan. But she still voted to set the public hearing.

"If we have to do this one more time to get to the same result we got to last time, then we'll do it," Murman said. "Because at that point then we can force ourselves to look at the budget."

Crist said commissioners and an independent task force should comb the budget for savings that could fund road and transit projects.

As the newest commissioner and a representative of suburban and rural east county, White has been the most consistent opponent of Go Hillsborough on the commission. He said he opposed any new revenue for transportation without a deeper dive into the budget.

White reminded commissioners that if citizens really want this on the ballot, they can collect the signatures to do it themselves.

"It's not as if an organized group of citizens came to this board asking for a tax referendum, and we've denied them of their right to vote," White said. "Rather it's this board ... that decided to consider this tax."

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com. Follow @scontorno.

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