ST. PETERSBURG — After spending $400,000 promoting the Greenlight Pinellas mass-transit plan last year, Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority has earmarked another $150,000 for a new educational campaign and may spend more in the run-up to the November referendum.
PSTA leaders say the campaign will enable voters to make an informed decision on whether to raise the sales tax by one penny to pay for an expanded bus service and a new light-rail network.
That will mean treading a fine line since state law prohibits tax dollars being spent to influence how residents vote. Nonetheless, the publicly funded campaign will also be used to counter misinformation PSTA leaders say is being spread by transit opponents, including the No Tax for Tracks group.
That has the group crying foul and that the campaign will positively promote the plan on the taxpayer’s dime.
“They can do anything up to the words “vote for,” and use our money to do it,” said Barbara Haselden, No Tax for Tracks campaign manager. “There is something wrong with this kind of system.”
PSTA leaders counter that their campaign is no different to other educational initiatives run by local governments prior to referendums. Pinellas County spent roughly $50,000 to inform residents how Penny for Pinellas funds would be spent if voters extended the sales tax. The 2007 referendum passed with 57 percent support.
“Our task is to make sure voters have a full set of accurate information,” said County Commissioner and PSTA Board Chairman Ken Welch. “It’s our responsibility to tell folks why we think this is the best interest of Pinellas County for the long term.”
The information campaign will be in addition to a privately funded advocacy campaign called Greenlight Yes, which will be launched Friday at the Pinellas Realtor’s Association. Realtors and construction firms are expected to pour up to $1 million into the push for the referendum to pass.
Greenlight is also backed by several civic groups including chambers of commerce, Connect Tampa Bay, the Sierra Club and the local NAACP.
PSTA CEO Brad Miller said there will be coordination between the two campaigns, both of which are expected to be directed by Tampa public relations firm Tucker Hall. He is scheduled to present details of the education campaign to PSTA’s board later this month, which could include increasing the budget for the campaign.
“We have other marketing dollars in our budget we might reallocate to that,” Miller said. “The PSTA board approved of us continuing with our outreach. We want to get out there and come up with a plan to correct some of those information pieces.”
PSTA Attorney Alan Zimmet already has briefed agency leaders on what is permissible for the campaign under state law.
The agency’s funds cannot be used for advertisements that include phrases like “vote for” and “support.”
“The private sector can pay for a political ad, but PSTA cannot pay for a political ad that uses those magic words,” Zimmet said.
But publicly funded advertisements can include verifiable information such as how many extra buses PSTA will put on the road if the referendum passes. More subjective claims such as “Bus services will be transformed in Pinellas if this passes” also are allowed, Zimmet said.
Miller and elected officials who make up most of PSTA’s governing board are also free to publicly advocate for the Greenlight plan at public meetings, community events and in discussions with the media.
If approved by voters, the $30 million in property taxes that fund PSTA would be replaced by $130 million a year from a one-cent sales tax hike, pushing the county tax rate to 8 percent. The money would go toward a 65 percent expansion of bus services, a 24-mile light rail network linking Clearwater and St. Petersburg, and the development of traffic lanes dedicated solely for buses.
A recent poll commissioned by transit opponents showed a majority opposed the sales tax hike, and may have heightened concern among PSTA leaders that they need to refute claims being made by No Tax for Tracks.
Welch said the group is over-emphasizing the proposed 24-mile light rail link connecting Clearwater to St. Petersburg, but omitting that half of the money will be used to expand bus services by 65 percent. He said they also are downplaying that the plan would eliminate the current PSTA property tax and that outside firms including Ernst and Young have declared it fiscally sound.
“They opposed Greenlight going before voters so it’s not surprising they would try to cast it in a negative light,” Welch said. “What PSTA will fund will be strictly informational; we will be doing advocacy as individuals not using public funds.”