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Daniel Ruth: Getting transportation tax on the ballot is one thing, passing it is another

Traffic backs up during afternoon rush hour on Interstate 275 in Tampa, just east of the Howard Frankland Bridge. [Times files (2017)]
Times Columnist Dan Ruth. [Times file]
Thursday 23 August 2018 09.00

There’s a great moment at the end of The Candidate, when Robert Redford, playing an improbable upset winner in a California U.S. Senate race, turns to his campaign manager and asks: "What do we do now?"

You have to suspect the activists who managed to accumulate some 51,000 signatures to put a transportation referendum on the November ballot might be asking themselves the same thing.

Getting the signatures may have been the easy part. Getting a majority of voters to agree to tax themselves one additional penny in sales taxes may prove to be a daunting proposition.

The public will get an opportunity to raise the sales tax by a penny to eight cents, which over the next 30 years will provide additional funding earmarked for road improvements, enhanced bus service and yes, seed money to develop light rail. If approved, in the first year of the tax, it is estimated about $280 million would be raised for transit projects.

RELATED: Candidates still deciding on transportation sales tax hike

The money to address transportation needs is long overdue as Hillsborough County continues to explode in both population and increasing traffic congestion.

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And yes, if voters approve the one cent bump, Hillsborough would have the dubious distinction of tying Liberty County for the highest sales tax rate in the state of Florida. Oh boy.

So is understandable when Tampa Bay Times reporter Charlie Frago endeavored to ask candidates running for the Hillsborough County Commission where they stood on the transit tax, many pols reacted as if the Angel of Death was knock, knock, knocking on their doors.

Incumbent Commissioner Victor Crist demurred, insisting he is still pondering the impact of the tax. Good grief, Crist has been a commissioner since 2010 and he’s still mulling over transportation issues? How tough should this be?

And Crist’s commission colleague Stacy White hemmed and hawed with Frago before finally admitting he wasn’t thrilled with the tax hike.

In all fairness to these pols, especially for Republican candidates, the sales tax issue on the ballot is fraught with the potential for career suicide.

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Imagine a poor soul running for office who might utter mild support for a sales tax increase, even one to address important infrastructure improvements?

Why, before you could say "Fake News," the airwaves and mailboxes throughout the county would be overflowing with accusations of: "Hillsborough County Commission candidate Milo Haversham is a tax and spend liberal, commie, and socialist who is little more than a Nancy Pelosi/Bernie Sanders/Hillary Clinton pawn! And he hates your children, too!"

Little wonder then folks like Crist and White revert to full hummana-hummana-hummana mode the minute an aide walks into their office and says: "Charlie Frago is on line two and he wants to talk about the transportation sales tax issue."

It is true the region’s transportation needs have been given short shrift for decades. This stuff costs money, gobs of money. And it’s not particularly sexy. You’ll never find a plaque in the middle of Brandon, noting: "This extra lane of roadway that did absolutely nothing to ease traffic congestion was brought to you by your Commissioner Stacy White."

And it is a difficult sell to residents in Hillsborough’s more rural areas that increasing the county sales tax to eight cents where some of the money will be used to develop a light rail system largely benefitting Tampa serves a greater good.

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Therein lies the challenge for the pro-transit tax advocates. Transportation is a critical need. But it has been the red-headed stepchild of Hillsborough County politics for decades.

We have been down this long, bumpy, pothole ravaged road before.

Getting more than 51,000 valid signatures on a petition to put the penny sales tax bump on the ballot was no small achievement.

Getting the citizenry to vote for it is entirely a different matter.

What do we do now?

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