The Republican-led county commission that takes over Tuesday could chart a very different direction for Hillsborough County. After four years with a Democratic majority, the board’s focus is expected to shift away from transportation and other big-ticket initiatives, as conservatives look to restrain taxes and spending and fashion a much narrower role for local government.
In surprise victories on Nov. 8, Republican Joshua Wostal beat incumbent Democratic Commissioner Kimberly Overman, while Republican Donna Cameron Cepeda defeated another Democratic incumbent, Commissioner Mariella Smith. The first-time Republican candidates prevailed despite being outspent by more than 3-1 in what observers widely credited as a down-ballot boost for GOP candidates from Gov. Ron DeSantis’ sweeping reelection victory.
Whatever the cause, the general election victories create a 4-3 Republican majority when the seven-member board meets for its swearing in and organizational session Tuesday. Republicans will retake the control they enjoyed for 16 consecutive years until the elections of Smith and Overman in 2018. And the first and most visible casualty could be the years-long effort to pass a countywide transportation surtax, which the voters narrowly rejected on Nov. 8, following a successful referendum in 2018 that was later invalidated by the Florida Supreme Court.
Wostal, Cepeda and Republican Commissioner-elect Michael Owen, who won an open seat in August, have all said they oppose putting another transportation tax on the ballot. The board’s fourth Republican, Commissioner Ken Hagan, who was reelected Nov. 8, voted against putting the tax on the ballot in November, citing concerns over inflation, gas prices and rising interest rates. That means any transportation initiative is effectively sidelined for now, especially after the latest failed initiative frustrated private-sector supporters, who have given the tax drive the campaign support it needs.
With any tax talk off the table, expect the new commission to explore spending cuts, consolidation of some offices or services and a loosening of local regulations as a means for making Hillsborough more competitive for jobs, residential growth and other commercial activity. Wostal in particular thinks the county can wrangle substantially more for transportation from the existing budget. He’ll have the chance now to demonstrate how the county can better live within its means. Cepeda, who heads a nonprofit ministry, ran a ghost campaign and limited her contacts with reporters. She’ll have to flesh out an agenda now, and operate more publicly, especially since she holds a countywide seat.
A big factor going forward is the role Hagan intends to play. First elected in 2002, he is the commission’s longest-serving member, and his institutional history and legislative skills could produce some meaningful bipartisan wins. Hagan supports stronger transit connections between the suburbs and major work centers, and he’s also interested in redeveloping older, mixed-use communities such as those near the University of South Florida. Those two priorities alone could promote housing affordability and job growth, and easily attract Democratic support.
The partisan changeover might ultimately prove less of an impact than having three new personalities in the mix. But there’s at least a transition period ahead, even as the clock is ticking on major decisions, from whether to extend the infrastructure tax, which expires in 2026, to whether to offer the Tampa Bay Rays an incentive to relocate to Hillsborough. The board’s selection of its officers including the new chairperson on Tuesday will mark the first step of this new chapter.
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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.