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Debates over debates ratchet up tax rhetoric

Penny for Pasco proponents and opponents disagree over the best means for informing the voters. Upcoming forums may help out.

Published January 16, 2004

If the debate over the proposed Penny for Pasco sales tax wasn't enough to get Joe Q. Voter fired up about the issues, perhaps the debate about the debate will.

Penny for Pasco advocates this week declined an open invitation to debate opponents of the proposed sales tax hike at the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce, instantly raising the ire of tax skeptics.

Allen Altman, co-chairman for the protax Pasco's Citizen Committee, said the group has no problem making public presentations in nondebate formats alongside tax opponents. It has agreed to two upcoming events: on Jan. 28 in Wesley Chapel and Feb. 3 near Dade City.

But since a heated December debate organized by antitax leaders at Beacon Woods Civic Center stirred passions on both sides, the protax side is increasingly bent on promoting in less confrontational formats the proposed increase that would raise the sales tax 1-cent on the dollar.

"I will not be a part of something that disseminates false information to the public," Altman said Wednesday.

The Citizen Committee declined the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce invitation after the County Commission agreed to film and broadcast a public Penny for Pasco question-and-answer session on cable access.

"Our objective was to present the information and the county was going to do that," said Thad Lowery, a member of the Citizen Committee who delivered the news to the chamber Wednesday.

The group's refusal to participate in a chamber event, however, stoked the criticisms of the Penny for Pasco opponents who believe protax forces are increasingly controlling how information about the March 9 tax referendum is being disseminated to the public.

With many county, school and municipal leaders pushing for voter approval of the 10-year, $437-million sales tax proposal, antitax leaders continue to say they feel squeezed out of the discourse.

"I have sympathy for people not wanting to walk into a hornet's nest," said Jerry Cirasuolo, vice president of the Heart of Pasco Republican Club in Land O'Lakes, "but not in this case because they're raising my taxes....When they're taking on a responsibility like that, they should be holding a debate every other day."

Cirasuolo and protax advocate Charlie Reese have been working together since last fall to arrange a club-sponsored debate. The Feb. 26 event's original format was to include two speakers from each side. But Cirasuolo said Reese was the only member of the Pasco's Citizen Committee willing to participate.

"The attitude (of the Citizen Committee) with debates is it's not the best use of our time," said Reese, who observed the Beacon Woods event. "There are some legitimate points that they could make up against the Penny for Pasco, but they're doing it in a way that cheapens the debate."

Reese said he's agreed to participate in the debate because he believes in the tax and he doesn't want to back out of a commitment he made many months ago.

Other issues at play in the debate over debates:

While the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce has declined to take a stand on the tax issue, outspoken tax opponent Bill Bunting serves on the chamber committee organizing the event.

Looking for more support for a Land O'Lakes debate, Cirasuolo last week approached the protax Central Pasco Chamber of Commerce to ask if they would be co-sponsors. The chamber, which declined, is chaired by Citizen Committee member Tim Hayes.

Altman said he believes there's a better way to help people understand the issue:

Present the reasons why proponents believe an increase is needed. Spell out how the County Commission, School Board and municipalities plan to spend the new revenues. And answer the public's questions.

In that vein, both sides are expected to present their viewpoints and take public questions at two upcoming public forums:

Tampa Tribune editorial writer William Yelverton will moderate a 7 p.m. forum Jan. 28 at the Wesley Chapel High School Performing Arts Center, 30651 Wells Road.

The Zephyrhills and Dade City chambers of commerce will host a Feb. 2 forum at Centennial Elementary, 38501 Centennial Road. Plans for that event were still being completed Thursday.

[Last modified January 16, 2004, 01:33:00]

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