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Panel delays rise in health care tax

The new GOP-majority commission votes against the automatic half-cent jump in the sales tax to fund health care for the poor.

By DAVID KARP

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 21, 2000


TAMPA -- For the new Republican majority on the Hillsborough County Commission, it was their first major policy decision -- and it was a big one.

For four hours Wednesday, dozens of poor people, doctors and hospital executives pleaded with the commission to leave the county's indigent health care tax alone.

The quarter-cent sales tax had been set to automatically jump to a half-cent in February. But Commissioner Jim Norman, a Republican from Carrollwood, was opposed, and he suggested keeping the tax at a quarter-cent until perhaps 2002.

In the end, Norman got part of his way. A 4-3 Republican majority voted to hold off increasing the sales tax until next October, saying the tax had accumulated too much of a reserve, $77-million. By next October, it is projected the reserve will have dropped to $39.5-million, less than half the annual cost of the program.

"What I am trying to do is validate this program," Norman told the standing-room-only audience.

Most in the crowd of about 125 people didn't believe him.

Some attacked Norman, a sports fan and former football coach, for opposing health care for the poor while backing tax subsidies for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Even Sheriff Cal Henderson, a Democrat who works well with Norman, opposed his proposal.

"If it is not paid out of the health care plan, it will have to be paid out of property taxes," Henderson warned Norman.

In addition to paying for the care of about 29,000 people too poor to afford private insurance, the health care tax pays to treat indigent inmates booked into the Hillsborough County jail.

Norman reminded Henderson that he came up with the idea to pay for inmate medical care with the fund.

"That's why I don't understand your position now," Henderson said. "I don't want to do anything to risk going to property taxes."

With the economy possibly slowing, the money brought in by the quarter-cent tax could decrease at the same time the number of people needing health care will go up. Meanwhile, health care costs have skyrocketed.

James Burton, chief financial officer at Brandon Regional Hospital, warned that his hospital could not afford to see more poor patients if the county cuts back its health care program. Hospitals actually need the program expanded and the tax increased, he said.

"If you cut the program or do not support the increase, it will only get worse," Burton said.

Isaac Mallah, president and chief executive officer of St. Joseph's-Baptist Health Care, echoed the concern.

"This program is too important to these people for speculation, guessing and especially for politics," Mallah said.

Even former Gov. Bob Martinez, a Republican who is now chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, urged the commission to take no action and let the sales tax rise.

Besides the heavy hitters, dozens of people who can't afford health care begged commissioners to let the program grow. Gael Murphy, who earns $9,000 a year working for an animal rights group, asked Norman directly if he would please let her keep going to the doctor.

"Is this a taste of the new compassionate conservatism?" Murphy asked. "It seemed not to be around when we were considering the Community Investment Tax for the rich."

She was referring to the half-cent sales tax that helped build Raymond James Stadium for the Bucs. Norman voted for the agreement that allows the Bucs to make millions off the publicly financed stadium.

The health care tax could become a political issue in two years -- when six of the seven commission seats will be open. Several elected officials, including Tampa City Council member Linda Saul-Sena and former Commissioner Phyllis Busansky, spoke at the hearing.

Busansky, a Democrat, told the commission health care was not a party issue. "There are not partisan people in this room," she said.

But in the hallway, Busansky was quizzing Republican Denise Lasher, a possible candidate for the commission in 2002, about Lasher's stance on the tax. (Lasher did not take a clear position on the issue.)

After four hours, even Norman had backed down from his original idea of delaying the tax increase for 2 1/2 years. He agreed to a compromise forged by Commissioner Chris Hart to keep the tax at its current level through Sept. 30. Then, the tax will automatically increase to a half-cent.

Unless, of course, the commission decides otherwise.

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