tampabay.com

Bishop may tip vote on Penny

County leaders already were worried about a tax backlash.

By WILL VAN SANT and SHERRI DAY
Published March 9, 2007


Bishop Robert N. Lynch cannot put ballots in a box, but he is an authority for Catholic voters in Pinellas.

Now Penny for Pinellas sales tax supporters have to worry whether Lynch's public criticism of the levy could tip the balance against its passage Tuesday.

Already, county leaders were battling against a growing antitax sentiment across some of the electorate, who viewed the additional 1-cent sales tax, which would raise nearly $2-billion, as an extravagance.

Such controversy wasn't what county leaders had in mind two years ago when they decided to hold the important vote to extend the tax from 2010 to 2020 in a municipal election cycle, which traditionally draw few voters.

Theoretically, a low turnout can help pass noncontroversial measures. But the Penny is that no more. Even a modest flowering of conviction could make a difference.

"The mobilized, energetic have a disproportionate impact," said Roger Handberg, who chairs the political science department at the University of Central Florida. "If it's a close election, this could be sufficient."

Lynch, who as head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg leads an estimated 112,000 Pinellas Catholics, sent a letter to pastors Wednesday that faulted the county's Penny spending plan for shortchanging the needy.

Thursday, he fired another missive, devoting his Out of the Ordinary column in the Florida Catholic newspaper to the issue. It was, perhaps, his strongest public stance on the Penny.

In the article, Lynch suggests that the vote was intentionally scheduled when fewer people would go to the polls.

"It is almost like those who plan and schedule these matters don't want a larger section of the voters to have an opportunity to decide on this matter," Lynch wrote. "It is a 'stealth' election with an important issue. One can be sure that every county and municipal worker will be encouraged to vote and to vote 'yes.' "

Lynch ends the letter saying "I know how I am going to vote."

But in an interview Thursday, Lynch declined to disclose his exact intentions.

"I personally in my life as a religious leader have felt that it's my task, my role, my job to present issues and not to take partisan positions against or for people," he said. "I don't believe the church should be a bully pulpit, but rather an opportunity to educate and inform."

Church's goal is more resources for neediest

Voters first adopted the Penny, narrowly, in 1989. Turnout was 29 percent. The tax was approved again in 1997, this time by a large margin. But turnout was a mere 23 percent.

By comparison, turnout in Pinellas for general elections, held in November of even numbered years, has averaged 62 percent over the last decade.

Lynch's public stance came this week after consultations with Frank Murphy, president of Catholic Charities, but also a former executive at both Clearwater's Morton Plant Hospital and Baycare Health System. For years, he has feuded with county leaders over what he considered their paltry funding for indigent health care needs.

Murphy said Lynch did not consider that his flock's influence - if they go to the polls -would be felt more heavily Tuesday than during a general election. Simple victory is not the only goal.

"Whether the vote is yes or whether the vote is no, we will continue to push for more resources for the needy," Murphy said. "Our responsibility as Christians is to do that."

County Administrator Steve Spratt, himself a Catholic, said he thinks Lynch's actions will produce votes against the Penny. But he pointed out that members of the church do not walk in lockstep with their bishop.

"As a practicing Catholic who reads the weekly bulletin," Spratt said, "I consider a lot of different sources and views to influence my opinion."

The bishop's message is distinct from the chorus of other critics, fed up with high property tax bills and insurance costs, who argue that Pinellas governments are drowning in cash and are spending recklessly.

Rather, Lynch says he's not against the tax, but wants more Penny money for social welfare programs. At issue is how to spend the nearly $2-billion the county and Pinellas cities stand to collect.

County: Penny tax helps social programs

By law, governments can use the money only for public buildings, roads, parks and other infrastructure. In theory, however, the Penny could be used to construct a public building dedicated to a human service function, like housing the homeless, for instance.

"If we cut them off at the knees, perhaps they will listen to us," is how the UCF's Handberg described the church's tactic.

While county leaders appreciate Lynch's motives, they say his move is nearsighted. By using Penny funds to pay for infrastructure needs, the county has been able to increase its general fund allocation for social service programs from $40-million in 2002 to $67-million this year, they say.

"It's been good for our community," County Commissioner Susan Latvala said of the Penny. "And I think the Catholic parishioners will look at it that way. It's a private vote. And they will weigh all the information they have."

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

By the numbers

67,631 to 67,223 yes to no votes in the first Penny vote in 1989.

29 percent turnout in the 1989 election.

86,433 to 47,543 yes to no votes in second Penny vote, 1997.

23 percent turnout in 1997 election.

112,000 number of Catholics in Pinellas County, according to 2000 survey by the Association of Religion Data Archives.