Sloppy transit sales tax effort raises question – is Water Street on the skids?

The Hillsborough petition effort underway to raise the sales tax hike to fund transit is looking very shaky. The petition itself violates state law, and the overall effort is sloppy in matters large and small. The effort also relies on a “leader” with a documented history of not adhering to federal tax law. Why has Lightning owner Jeff Vinik supported this sloppy effort with a $150,000 donation?

A brief background: there have been three failed attempts since 2010 to increase the sales tax in Hillsborough County to pay for transit. The “Moving Hillsborough Forward” referendum in 2010 for light rail was overwhelmingly defeated (58% NO), and the county commission in 2016 twice declined to put another sales tax on the ballot.

Hillsborough County
Commissioner Victor Crist

“The real polls, not push polls, showed 63% NO,” Hillsborough county commissioner Victor Crist said in 2016 in explaining his decision to not support putting that sales tax hike before the voters.

The overwhelming defeat (64% NO) of a tax hike to pay for transit in heavily Democrat Nashville just two months ago suggests that voters are still at “NO.”  Collapsing transit ridership nationwide may be a factor in their minds. The Nashville defeat was described by USA Today as “a crushing blow to much of the city’s establishment.”

Now a group calling itself All for Transportation (AFT) is trying to raise the sales tax in Hillsborough County to 8% through a county charter amendment. AFT plans to gather 48,745 voter petitions, enough to place the charter amendment on the November ballot for voters to approve. See reporting by Chris O’Donnell of the Tampa Bay Times on AFT’s effort here.

The Guardian has found two substantive legal problems with the petition:

  • The ballot summary,  often called “the ballot question,” calls for a “one-cent sales surtax levied for 30 years.” However, Florida Statute 212.055(1)(b) authorizes a rate “up to 1 percent.” A levy of a one cent tax is thus not authorized by the statute, only a one percent tax.
  • The proposed charter amendment prescribes exactly how the tax revenue is to be spent. However, FS 212.055(1)(d) requires that “proceeds from the surtax shall be applied in…..whatever combination the county commission deems appropriate.In other words, the charter amendment simply cannot control how the money is used because the county commission makes that decision.

Telling voters things that aren’t accurate could result in the measure being thrown out by a court of law before it even makes it on to the ballot.

In addition, section 8.05 of the Hillsborough County Charter requires that a financial impact statement be placed immediately after the “ballot question.” No such financial impact statement in included in this measure.

AFT president Tyler Hudson

We contacted AFT president Tyler Hudson, a Tampa attorney, via e-mail and asked if AFT had obtained a legal opinion on their petition before they started gathering signatures. We spoke to the receptionist at Hudson’s law firm to make sure he received our e-mail. Hudson did not respond.

We e-mailed Jeff Vinik’s spokesman Bill Wickett,  and Ali Glisson, spokeswoman for Vinik’s planned $3 billion Water Street project . Among other things, we asked what Vinik had done to insure that AFT’s effort complies with state law. We received no response. As mentioned above, Vinik has donated $150,000 to the petition effort.

There is additional evidence of sloppy work. First, as for sloppiness in “matters small:” on the petition, right below where signers fill in their city and zip code, the form tells voters to “check box” to tell the Supervisor of Elections (SOE) office if this is their new address. Yet no check box is provided.

In the category of medium sloppiness falls AFT’s failure to report events at local restaurants as as-kind contributions on their campaign finance reports. Such reports are required  by state law.

Also, by law AFT has 6 months to gather petitions, but since they started late they only have only six weeks. Why the very late start?

In the category of “sloppiness in matters large,” there are the aforementioned statutory violations, but also AFT’s choice of Kevin Thurman (see above graphic) to be a leading figure in its effort. Thurman previously led Connect Tampa Bay, a non-profit with murky funding that also advocated for a sales tax hike to fund transit.

During its three-year existence, Connect Tampa Bay failed to file the federal tax returns required by law. When the Guardian in 2016 asked to see the tax returns, Thurman falsely claimed that the returns had been filed with the IRS, and that copies had been sent to us. We never received copies of their tax returns, despite repeated requests.

When we notified local elected officials of Connect Tampa Bay’s non-compliance with federal tax law, Connect Tampa Bay dissolved itself.

Completed petitions are being turned in to the Supervisor of Elections without the required payment to begin validation. Observers are becoming curiouser and curiouser about what is actually  going on with Tampa’s new Water Street Wonderland.

Lightning owner and Water Stret developer Jeff Vinik

When a “new” transit effort uses a disgraced transit advocate to hastily carry out a sloppy petition drive, it raises the question: why is Vinik lending his good name to the effort and funding it? Has his Water Street project hit the skids? Does he urgently need the taxpayer-funded subsidies for developers that transit projects bring?

Already five months ago, the independent Tampa Bay Beat blog asserted that Vinik’s Water Street project “is in deep trouble.”  Hail Mary passes like Vinik’s donation to this petition effort don’t defeat such claims. It only raises red flags, especially given the total unresponsiveness of all those we sought answers from.

As always….the Guardian reports and our readers decide. Like our Facebook page to find out when we publish articles.

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