TAMPA — Members of the Tampa Tiger Bay Club forced Hillsborough County Commission candidates Wednesday to stake out positions on a 1 cent sales tax increase for transportation projects — a subject the winning candidates will likely have to deal with in 2016.
The 10 candidates in attendance also were asked about whether they favored a nonpartisan commission, what issue they felt was highest on the minds of county voters, and how they felt about a commission vote Wednesday to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identification.
The tax issue, raised in questions by two Tiger Bay members, is likely to pack the most impact in campaigns leading up to the Aug. 27 party primaries.
The three Democrats on the panel — Mark Nash and Pat Kemp, running for countywide District 7, and Elizabeth Belcher in District 2 — all favored putting the transportation tax on the November 2016 ballot.
Republicans were split or gave nuanced answers. District 4 candidate Rick Cochran said he believes there is enough money in the county budget now to improve transportation without raising taxes. His Republican opponent for the east-southeastern county district, Janet Dougherty, said all potential solutions to the county’s jammed roadways should be explored.
“We have to find a solution” to clogged roads, Dougherty said.
The other Republican candidate in the District 4 race, Stacy White, did not attend the luncheon. White has described himself as the “most conservative” candidate in that race and opposes new taxes.
District 2 Commissioner Victor Crist, a Republican who does not face opposition in his party primary, said he’s “not afraid” to vote to put a tax on the ballot, but only if the transportation projects the tax would finance are effective and provide a “strong return on investment.”
In the countywide District 7 race, Commissioner Al Higginbotham said he would support the final proposal by the county’s transportation policy leadership group. That group, which includes the county commissioners, the mayors of the county’s three cities and the chairman of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit bus service, has been meeting for over a year, looking at transportation projects and ways to pay for them.
The transportation policy leadership group is expected to propose a referendum on a 1 cent sales tax increase in November 2016.
Two of the other Republican candidates in the race, Robin Lester and Don Kruse, each said they would support a referendum on the tax. Lester cited a heavily contested 1 cent sales tax that Charlotte voters approved for light rail.
“It really made a difference there,” Lester said.
Lester and Kruse also agreed with Democrats Kemp and Nash in naming transportation as the most pressing issue facing the next commission. Most of the Republicans on the panel said economic development is the pre-eminent issue.
Republican Tim Schock, the latest entry in the District 7 race, said economic development and transportation are intertwined and both need attention. But Schock said the county has enough money in the $3.9 billion budget to support road work and mass transit without a new tax.
“For us to solve these issues, it’s not about new taxes, it’s about managing our priorities,” Schock said. “There are things we can do, practical solutions that industry has taught us as well as other counties around the country that have found solutions that work that don’t require a tax increase, but are generating money from other revenue sources.”
Schock got perhaps the loudest applause when he and the other candidates were asked whether they would support changing the commission races to nonpartisan, like elections for Tampa mayor and city council and school board. Schock said he would rather have open primaries, in which all voters, whether Democrat, Republican or Independent, can vote in any party primary.
The applause was likely in response to Florida election rules that close a party primary if a candidate from another party qualifies to run for that office. This has resulted in write-in candidates, who don’t have to pay a qualifying fee or collect the required number of petition signatures, getting on the ballot and closing the primary to voters of other parties and Independents.
That was the case in commission District 4, where there are only Republican candidates. Christopher Lawrence Weaver qualified to run late in the race as a write-in candidate, which closed the GOP primary to Democratic and Independent voters.
Kruse, who has run several losing races for public office, drew the most laughter during the luncheon forum in responding to the question about whether he would support a referendum on a transportation tax.
Kruse said yes.
“If transportation in Hillsborough County was a horse,” he said, “we’d have to shoot it.”