The Penny vote: Why now?

Approval is more likely when few are paying attention, its critics say.

Published February 25, 2007

March is near. Memories of Christmas spending have faded. And tax bills aren't due until April.

Plus, the days are getting longer and warmer.

When better to hold a vote on extending the Penny for Pinellas sales tax for another decade?

Critics of the penny-per-dollar levy say the timing couldn't be better for the governments that feed on the tax; or worse for the residents who must pay it.

"They don't really respect the voice of the citizens," University of South Florida political science professor Darryl Paulson said of county leaders who scheduled the vote a full three years before the current Penny tax authorization expires. "This is blatant political calculation."

It was back in 2005 when the County Commission decided to hold the Penny referendum on March 13, when local races are being held in 15 of Pinellas' 24 municipalities.

Like the first two times voters approved the Penny - narrowly in November 1989 and decisively in March 1997 - commissioners scheduled the vote during a municipal election cycle rather than a general election, which are held in even-numbered years.

Turnout is low in municipal elections. Just 29 percent of Pinellas voters weighed in on the Penny in 1989, and just 23 percent in 1997.

That's less than half the average 62 percent turnout in the past decade for general elections - when voters choose a president, representatives, a governor and/or state legislators.

In seven Pinellas towns, the Penny referendum will be the only thing on the ballot. In two more, the only other measure is a question about raising fire district fees, hardly an issue that will draw long lines to the polls.

Only those with a vested interest in seeing the Penny extended will bother to vote in these nine towns, Paulson said.

"It is an abomination that they are allowed to do this," he said, "that as a government entity they seek to minimize the number of people that will take part in an electoral decision."

County officials deny that they are trying to stack the vote, noting the county has spent significant resources advertising the issue to voters.

"I think featuring this in an almost standalone fashion has been the right decision," said County Commissioner Bob Stewart. "I think the Penny has found a niche."

Stewart was among those who voted in 2005 to schedule the Penny referendum this March. Stewart said Paulson's observations are nothing but a bunch of "academic rhetoric."

Stewart would not rule out any considerations that may have been on the minds of commissioners when they settled on March 13, saying the date may in fact favor those who want to see the Penny extended.

Yet he argued that the continuation of the Penny is so significant to the county that it deserves to be put under the "headlights" rather than buried on a jammed general election ballot.

County Administrator Steve Spratt, who for months has been attending speaking engagements to stump for the Penny, agrees with Stewart. He rejects the charge that the vote was scheduled to take advantage of modest attendance at the polls.

"We would not be reaching out to voters, spreading the word, if we didn't want broad turnout," Spratt said.

But also galling to Penny opponents is the cost of holding the referendum. If the March 13 election did not include the Penny vote, then the fire district and the 15 towns with local races would have to pay the cost.

Instead, the countywide referendum on the Penny tax means the county supervisor of elections will cover the costs, estimated to be just over $1-million.

That's on top of the $200,000 the county has set aside for Penny promotional efforts.

When county leaders pitch the Penny, they are armed with selling points. Revenue from the tax has paid for numerous necessities and amenities that have improved life for county residents.

And much of the tax, about a third, according to county officials, is paid by visitors, not residents.

Dominic Calabro, president of Florida Tax Watch, said for all he knows the Penny may be a wonderful thing, but said its naive to believe that leaders weren't calculated in scheduling the vote.

"They are politicians for goodness sake," Calabro said.

The current Penny is set to expire in 2010. There's no reason that a vote on continuing the tax could not be held during a general election between now and then. Calabro suggested November 2008, a presidential election that is sure to generate lots of turnout.

"The elected officials would have given the voters the greatest, not the least, opportunity to demonstrate their will," he said.

A 2008 Penny election is unlikely, however, unless the referendum is defeated next month and county commissioners are forced to schedule another vote.

But March 13 isn't the only shot voters' have at the Penny. Early voting begins Monday at three locations in Pinellas and, except for Sundays, will continue through March 10.

To learn more about early voting, go to www.votepinellas.com.

Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or 727 445-4166.

Fast Facts:


Penny for Pinellas

- It's a penny on the dollar sales tax in addition to the state's 6 cent sales tax.

- The current Penny expires in 2010. The March 13 ballot asks voters to extend the tax for another decade, until 2020.

- The tax is only collected on the first $5,000 of purchases and is not levied on essentials like food and medicine.

- Money from the tax is shared by the county government and Pinellas' 24 municipalities.

- About a third of Penny revenue comes from visitors to Pinellas, not residents.

- By state law, the money can only be spent on public infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, government buildings and parks.

- Between 2010 and 2020, estimates show the Penny generating nearly $2-billion.