Transit tax starts in dark

By Bill Varian, Times Staff Writer

Published Saturday, November 7, 2009

TAMPA — A vote this week by Hillsborough County commissioners to pursue a transit tax referendum in 2010 marked the official start of the campaign for and against the initiative.

Intended or not, that campaign could start off in the shadows by virtue of the way commissioners are proceeding.

The commission's 5-2 vote essentially allows backers of the initiative — as well as detractors — to begin raising money and organizing their efforts without disclosing who is contributing to their cause.

"People need to know who is bankrolling this," said Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who along with Jim Norman voted against the measure. "I think our voters and constituents deserve full financial disclosure."

Supporters of placing the sales tax referendum before voters say they have no intention of proceeding in secrecy. They say commissioners are moving forward in a way that allows them to make changes as they engage the public to get views on how a new transit system should look.

"The only reason we did that is because we didn't have the actual ballot language ready," said Commissioner Mark Sharpe, a leading advocate.

Other commissioners want to be able to place their stamp on a transit plan that has been crafted by a citizen panel during the past two years.

Practically speaking, a November 2010 election is now just a year away, and its backers would like to begin organizing and raising money for a campaign.

They aren't going to do that if they don't have some assurance that commissioners will put the question to voters.

"We've got to give some indication that we're serious about this," Sharpe said.

A task force formed by commission Chairman Ken Hagan is recommending that commissioners put a 1-cent sales tax increase proposal on the November 2010 ballot. Most of the money would go toward building a commuter light rail line and beefing up the bus system.

Twenty-five percent of the money would go toward building roads.

To put the question to voters, commissioners will have to craft ballot language and approve an ordinance supporting the referendum. Instead, commissioners last week approved a resolution saying they intend to do that.

They'll debate the issue during the next three months and hold public hearings about the actual ballot language, which may not be approved until February or later.

Once ballot language is approved, it will trigger elections laws that require groups campaigning on the initiative to disclose who they are, who is giving them money and how they're spending it, said County Attorney Renee Lee.

David Caton, executive director of the Florida Family Association — best known for its involvement in moral issues relating to adult entertainment and gay rights — has been an early and visible critic of the initiative.

He says it's the worst possible time to be hitting Hillsborough families with a new tax.

It will be hard for those same families to organize and pay for a campaign against the proposal. The commission's approach gives supporters an unfair advantage, he said, and gives special interests promoting the measure the ability to do so out of the sunshine.

"You have to ask the question, why not just go ahead and approve an ordinance?" Caton said. "You have to believe the intent is to cloak the bureaucracies and the businesses who stand to make a lot of money on this."

Bus makers, companies that build rail systems and train stations are among them, he said.

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who has been pushing for a rail system for years, said she would have preferred that commissioners approve the referendum by December.

But she said that the county administration has insisted that commissioners be given a meaningful opportunity to shape language that will govern everything from how much of the money is spent on roads to who runs the rail system.

It is those commissioners who are most likely to take the heat from constituents for allowing a vote that could lead to a tax increase.

That's the only reason for this approach, Iorio said. She said she has no intention of launching a stealth campaign, and is not aware of any group that plans to do so.

She said she does foresee a group of business and community leaders stepping forward to push the initiative, because that has occurred in most communities where commuter rail has won community support.

Iorio said it will be apparent to all who they are.

"I just don't see that argument," Iorio said. "I think the people who are going to be associated with this campaign are going to be proud of that association."

Stuart Rogel is president and chief executive officer of the Tampa Bay Partnership, a regional economic development organization that has played a pivotal role in encouraging the transportation discussion.

He said transparency will be a top priority of any campaign by his group or assisted by his group to promote the initiative.

"It will be open and clear who is leading the effort and contributing to the effort," said Rogel, agreeing that refusing to do so only invites a distraction. "We want the issue to be debated on the merits, we really do."

Bill Varian can be reached at or (813) 226-3387.

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