Speaking to CL after the meeting, the veteran legislator said it was a "shame when government officials want to avoid studies that might show if the taxpayers' money can be spent better than it's being spent. All that's in that bill is a study of the effects and impacts and potential dollar savings to a merger of the two systems ? both of which are at or near their current millage caps."
Latvala says such a study could show a savings of between $5-$7 million for Tampa Bay taxpayers.
Months ago Dr. Steven Polzin, a HART board member and researcher at the Center for Urban Transportation Research at USF, issued a paper to his colleagues suggesting, based on his experience with a merger in Dallas, that such a merger could actually cost taxpayers money; in addition to possible increases in salaries and benefits, working through the legal ramifications of property taxes and bondholders would also be expensive.
During Monday morning's meeting, HART board member and County Commissioner Sandy Murman expressed her displeasure with Senator Latvala, saying "the proposer of this bill told us he would not move forward unless there was consensus."
Murman also questioned the lack of an effective rebuke to Latvala's bill (which was pushed in the House by St. Pete Republican Jeff Brandes). "How could this be allowed to happen?" she asked, requesting that the chair of the Hillsborough delegation (currently state Senator Ronda Storms) come before the board at an upcoming meeting.
Murman also complained about the effectiveness of HART's lobbyists in Tallahassee in not garnering more opposition, though she also acknowledged how hard it is to go up against a potential future leader (During the first part of the recently ended session Latvala was challenging Andy Gardiner for Senate President for 2014. Gardiner won that battle, but Latvala is expected to lead in 2016.)
Latvala said he didn't understand the concerns about spending $50,000 since HART spent more than that on lobbyists to try to keep the bill from passing. "They spend more than that on lobbyists every single year," he countered. HART officials say their lobbyist ? the Fort Lauderdale-based firm of Colodny, Fass, Talenfeld, Karlinsky and Abate ? worked on other issues besides HB 599 in Tallahassee this past session).
The Pinellas-based legislator says he gets the feeling that that HART officials don't want the public to see the potential savings that he estimates could emanate from a merger, but again insists he's not mandating that.
"This just asks for a study, and if they don't consolidate, asks for a report back to the Legislature on why they're not going to do that. Nothing to be afraid of," Latvala says.