Putting the pain before the train
March 31, 2010
Sales experts and pollsters know that how a question is phrased influences the answer.
The ballot language of a transportation referendum agreed to by Hillsborough County commissioners earlier this month clearly gives the question a slightly negative spin. That's unfortunate.
Passing a tax increase during an economic slowdown was never going to be easy. But at least the rail question does appear headed for the November ballot.
After years of discussion, voters deserve a say in whether Hillsborough County remains one of the nation's largest urban areas without a modern transit system. Rail and taxes are obviously the central issues, and both deserve prominent mention.
A vote is needed because rail cannot be built, and the bus system cannot be greatly improved, without a tax increase.
Rail is popular with a majority of residents in most cities, probably including this one. Tax increases are unpopular.
So a big issue was what voters would see first on the ballot, taxes or rail?
A proposal to mention the rail first failed with only three supporters. Commissioner Rose Ferlita suggested wording that changed the order, and it passed 5-2. Ferlita explained that her proposal "puts it right up front for people to understand what we're asking them to do, instead of at the end."
But emphasizing the one percent sales surtax takes emphasis off rail, which is buried 55 words deep and might be missed by voters in a hurry.
Here is the official question: "Shall transportation improvements throughout Hillsborough County, Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City be funded by levying a one percent transpiration sales surtax from January 1, 2011 until repealed, deposited into a dedicated trust fund, all spending reviewed by an independent oversight committee of citizens and experts, with 75% spent on transit, including local rail and an expanded bus system for express, local and neighborhood service, and 25% spent on improving roads and other transportation projects?"
Voting no were commissioners Jim Norman and Al Higginbotham.
Norman doesn't want to ask the question at all. Higginbotham wanted the language to make clear that at stake is a "tax increase."
The word used is "surtax," which means an extra tax on something that is already taxed.
Higginbotham probably wouldn't be happy unless the language included a warning that passing it would be hazardous to your economic health.
The majority was right to ignore these objections.
But no matter how it's organized, the question is not simple. On the readability scale, it ranks at the post-graduate level and will be needlessly perplexing to voters, who will be dealing with an extensive ballot.
Ballot questions must pass legal muster, but perhaps it would also be advisable to require a level of readability similar to magazines and newspapers.
One simple test would be whether an average person can read out loud each sentence of the question in one breath.
Try it. You'll probably be out of breath before you reach the rail.
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