Local officials gather in Tampa to question what went wrong with Hillsborough transit tax

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Ronnie Duncan said at the end of the session that there was no silver bullet that the media could seize upon in analyzing how the measure got beat so bad.

But Gary Sasso, CEO of the law firm Carlton Fields, said he was willing to bet that the reason was, as Dr. McManus said, a huge tide of anti-government sentiment of which the transit tax was simply a casualty. He clung to information culled after the vote, such as the fact that the measure was successful in the city of Tampa, and that only 30% in exit polls said they weren't interested in the measure being resurrected in some fashion.

But making sure that nobody missed the message of the election was Mark Sharpe, who spoke about how he had put himself in the line of fire, so to speak, by being such a prominent supporter for the measure in the same year that he faced re-election.

Sharpe was successful in staving off a challenge in the GOP primary from Josh Burgin, who ran a race that was narrowly focused on the unpopularity within the world of Hillsborough county Republicans for his support of a measure that would raise the sales tax by a penny.

But Sharpe, well-known and respected in the community for nearly two decades, was able to withstand Burgin's insurgent run (fueled extensively by noted anti tax crusader Sam Rashid). And he was outspoken on Wednesday morning in saying he got the message that voters are fed up with excessive government spending, and said that before new steps were taken, it was incumbent that those in Hillsborough listen to what the citizenry has to say.

"We have to be clear that we respect the will of the people," Sharpe said. He added that another measure should go forward, "but only after we've had a conversation with the community."

TBARTA Chairman Ronnie Duncan stressed that it was time to have more of a "regional conversation," saying the public isn't nearly as focused on geographic boundaries as elected officials are. He also said he wouldn't be surprised if Pinellas County (where he formerly served on its county commission) decided to move forward with their own tax measure in 2011 or 2012. (The county's transportation task force will meet next month to discuss that possibility.)

Ron Govin, Temple Terrace city councilman and chairman of HART's board of directors, said that in the days since the measure failed, he's heard an "overwhelming" number of of reasons why. "It seems like we're uncovering things that were out there that we didn't see. That we've turned over a couple more stones, and below them there's some jewels that may allow us to do some different things."

Moving Hillsborough Forward's Gary Sasso said he agreed with Sharpe that workshops need to be convened with the public to hear what's on their mind when it comes to any new referendum possibility. And he also spoke of scaling back plans and perhaps presenting a demonstration project, such as getting a route from Tampa's yet to be constructed high-speed rail station out to Tampa International Airport as a possibility.

But there was one strong dissenting voice who spoke to CL at the conclusion of Wednesday's session. Tampa mayoral candidate Ed Turanchik said that he doesn't think light rail will ever work in Tampa, saying it will be too costly.

"There wasn't a lot of intellectual honesty in this whole thing. Why are we picking light rail at 2 1/2 times the cost of BRT (bus rapid transit) that can move the same amount of people?" he asked. Turanchik added that he had told those crafting the referendum over a year and a half ago about his concerns, saying that he thinks the whole idea of light rail for the region will simply never work.

It's been two weeks now since those working on the Hillsborough sales tax referendum to help fund the beginnings of a light rail system have had time to assess what went so wrong on November 2, when county voters overwhelmingly defeated the much hyped measure.

Calling for a tax increase, always a tall order in Hillsborough County, only got harder as the country and the region's economy continued to sputter throughout 2010. As USF Political Science Professor Susan McManus put it, the public was in a very bad mood this year, and the result was a very public spanking of the government by the electorate.

McManus began the 90-minute event at the Straz Center by declaring the 2010 vote "the most nationalized election we've ever had." Considering that Democratic county commission candidates were being compared to Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi, she was dead on in her assessment (just ask Alex Sink).

After reading some exit polling information that reflected the public's distaste with government, the USF professor then shared some information from a poll conducted by Survey USA for WFLA-Channel 8 a full month before the election that was prescient in assessing the fate of the transit tax. That poll showed just 41% in support, and 59% either not supporting the measure or just not certain about it at the time (the official election result was 58.11% against, 41.89% in support).

Following that analysis, Don Kuehl, president of the Phoenix Community Alliance in Arizona, spoke about how Maricopa County, which contains Phoenix, twice rejected a similar measure back in the 1980s (their measure called for a half-cent tax). Ultimately,  an even smaller tax increase (0.4%) was passed in 2000 to begin construction of a light rail system.

One key factor that Kuehl said helped get the measure passed was the outreach to the community, something that Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe stressed after hearing Kuehl's presentation.

Sharpe was seated on a panel with Ronnie Duncan of TBARTA; Gary Sasso, chair of Moving Hillsborough Forward; HART board of directors chairman Ron Govin; and James Moore with the Urban Land Institute.

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