Two Hillsborough Commissioners square off on transit

04/22/10 Kate Bradshaw
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Today in Sun City Center, two Hillsborough County commissioners cordially debated one of the biggest issues the county’s voters may face in November: a penny sales tax increase to fund transit. And the area’s residents – mostly retirees – didn’t go easy on them.

Commissioners Mark Sharpe and Al Higginbotham didn’t budge on their staunch yet wildly divergent positions on a sales tax increase that would fund rail, road improvements, and a host of other projects. Sharpe, a major proponent of the overhaul, framed his argument in terms of infrastructure, and cited the Founding Fathers in doing so.

Quincy Adams argued for an investment in infrastructure—at that time, canals and roads. Secretary of Treasury Thomas Gallatin (sic), for President Jefferson, argued for a massive plan to unite our nation with canals and roads. Because they understood that internal improvements were important. They also understood that the Constitution—Article 1, Section 8—allows for it.

Higginbotham, who is in favor of improving only the county’s bus system, used the witticism of a cowboy to defend his position.

*It was Will Rogers who said, “The only difference between death and taxes is when Congress meets, death doesn’t get any worse.”*

Higginbotham emphasized that a penny sales tax would boost the county’s sales tax by 14 percent, while Sharpe focused on the potential returns from such an investment. Audience members who asked them questions, such as Chuck Colette, were just as resolute.

That sucking sound that I think everyone in this room hears is the concern that we all have about the use of government funding and money ending up being used for other things than its original intention.

Colette’s question was: Why not include a sunset provision for the tax? But Sharpe said county staff had found that lifting the tax after some time would compromise the system.

Which means you build a smaller system, you go to less locations, because you know full well at some point, the money’s going to run out.

Former Hillsborough County commissioner Brian Blair, a Republican running for the State House’s District 47 seat, had this question for Commissioner Sharpe.

How in the world, in the midst of the worst economy that we’ve ever seen, can you call yourself a fiscal conservative?

Well, that’s easy, Sharpe said.

We’re investing in infrastructure. This is about putting money into infrastructure—roads, concrete and steel—so that we can compete economically, and create jobs.

Higginbotham still did not agree.

But I don’t think that we’re at a point right yet to put—as government, reach across the table, and put our hands into your wallets, and take your money.

Even by the close of the debate, no minds seemed to be changed—including that of Hillsborough County activist Mariella Smith. She said her support of the transit overhaul tax remained intact, because she heard nothing new from the opposition.

I came to see if the opponents had anything new to say, or anything real to say against this. And all I heard was fear, rhetoric, no tax, the stuff, without addressing the issue that we are all paying, all of us, to sit in our cars.

Commissioner Higginbotham said that this was the first time two Hillsborough County commissioners debated outside commission chambers. At 6 p.m. on May 13, they will hold a public hearing to hear from taxpayers on the issue.

Higginbotham on transit:

More WMNF coverage of the proposed transit tax:

Pinellas to Launch Transit Task Force

Hillsborough Commissioners still torn on transit tax ballot language

Transit Leaders Hear Good News on Federal Funds - Sort Of

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