This train finally may leave the station

By Howard Troxler, Times Columnist

Published Monday, November 16, 2009

Signs of change, although it's not clear which is more striking:

(1) The Hillsborough County Commission takes the first step, on a 5-2 vote, toward holding a 2010 election on a tax for transportation including light rail.

(2) Conservative businessman Sam Rashid, an election backer and important influence on the commissioners for years, is reduced to sending them an e-mail to complain about the tax vote.

A complaint e-mail! From Sam Rashid! What's next, a snippy letter to the editor? Flaming blog posts? Picketing outside the county building?

"I thought," I teased Rashid on Monday, "that all you had to do was issue orders to those guys by ESP."

Rashid laughed. "Maybe some people actually believed that," he said. But he said he's rarely stuck his nose into the nuts and bolts of daily decisions, once he's helped commissioners get elected. Only on "core issues" like this.

"Now, Ralph, God rest his soul, Ralph really dived into the minutiae," said Rashid. He was referring to the late Ralph Hughes, another conservative Hillsborough businessman who helped drive commission elections over the years.

Rashid and Hughes, Hughes and Rashid. Through their backing and efforts they almost personally converted the Hillsborough County Commission from a late 1980s activism (Ed Turanchik, Phyllis Busansky) to a low-tax, less-government, development-friendly outfit (Jim Norman, Ronda Storms, Brian Blair).

But something interesting has happened. The commission voted 5-2 for the intent to hold a 2010 election on a 1-cent sales tax. Rail is the headline, but they have gussied it up with buses and roads, too ("bribes," Rashid calls it).

In a stroke, Hillsborough takes the leadership on the whole Tampa Bay rail thing. The very hotbed of tax-raising for mass transit becomes … the Hillsborough County Commission. Who knew?

Sure, there were yes votes from Democrats Kevin White and Kevin Beckner, who ousted Blair in the last election: But on top of that, three Republicans voted yes: Rose Ferlita, Mark Sharpe and Ken Hagan, the chairman of the task force that studied the tax. The two no votes were Republicans Jim Norman and Al Higginbotham.

Hence Sam Rashid, citizen e-mailer. His message: We will remember next November. "My goal," he says, "is to inform every voting Republican as to where people stood on this particular tax."

Rashid said he wants to make clear that he's not opposed to transportation improvements. Just the new tax, which could take in $170 million or more each year — an enormous boondoggle, a "trough" of money for people looking to profit, he thinks.

He supports the alternative advanced by Norman of extending the existing community investment sales tax.

The tax has a tough road to travel. The commission still has to vote. There are two ready-made campaign slogans against it: It constitutes a 14 percent increase in the sales tax in tough times, and it would give Hillsborough the highest sales tax in the state.

But it's still the biggest step ever taken toward rail around here, and it would not have been possible at the height of the Rashid-Hughes influence. Polls suggest voters are at least willing to consider it.

I asked Rashid: What if you tell everybody about this — and they like it?

"Then that's great," he replied. "That's what democracy is."