Award–winning journalist Andrea Bernstein is Senior Editor for Politics & Policy for WNYC News. She has previously served as Metro Editor, Political Director, Director of Transportation Nation, and Senior Reporter.
(Tampa, FL -- Andrea Bernstein, Transportation Nation) It's hard to imagine, that in this year, in these times, there's a measure anywhere that asks voters to approve a new tax. But in the Tampa, Florida, area there's actually a referendum on the ballot, asking voters for an extra penny for every dollar they spend to build a local transit system and improve area roads.
Tampa's county -- Hillsborough -- is a key swing county (it voted for both Obama and Bush) in a key swing state, so the outcome of the vote here will no doubt be studied by Mayors and transit planners for evidence of how to fund cash-strapped transit systems for years to come.
Some other context about Florida -- for years the state was a boom state, fueled largely by housing construction. But that market, as you know, tanked. Unemployment is now at 12 percent, one of the highest in the nation. The African-American community, which helped fuel Obama's victory here two years ago, has been particularly hard hit. Over by the C. Blythe Andrews Jr. public library, Sadiqa Muqaddam told me his story -- he'd been working as a welder for forty years, starting at a shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi.
"One day I was going all over the state of Florida. I was working out of Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, everywhere, I was everywhere, you know? And now, when I look around, there's no jobs. There's no jobs." In the last year, Muqaddam lost his home. "I'm renting, now I'm back renting. Before I used to own. I'm used to walking in my three bedroom house, two jobs, my little Chihuahua. I don't have that no more. Even my dog died. Lost my cars, everything."
"I got the raggediest car out here."
I Ask Muqaddum about the transit tax, and at first, he's dubious. "We don't have -- It's just like you're taking, you know, we ain't got. And then the little bit we do got, you're taking, you know."
I push Muqaddum, asking, as I frequently do, about the opposing view.
I say, "Some people say well, it's going to help create jobs, particularly in what you do, welding, construction."
"Maybe," he says "Maybe down the line."
In the past, sales tax ballot measures have proven successful -- Charlotte funded their LYNX light rail system with a 1998 ballot measure for a half-cent tax that was again supported by voters in a 2007 measure championed by Republican Mayor Pat McCrory, and in Colorado, where the Denver Mayor, John Hickenlooper, now running for Governor, -- got a ballot measure passed in some 32 counties in 2004, the year Goerge W. Bush won the state of Colorado for a second time.
And here too there are independents and Republicans who believe in this initiative. One man, who didn't want his name used because he works for a large non-profit, told me he had voted for the Tea Party-backed Marco Rubio for U.S. Senate, but also for the transit tax.
"I think Tampa is destined to be a great city. I think its been destined to be a great city for a long time. And I don't think that light rail is necessarily the salvation, but I think it could lead to a tipping point here, where local talent will want to stay here, and talent from other parts of the country will want to live here and stay here and contribute to the economy, and I think light rail is one part of the solution to making that happen."
A sales tax, he says, "is fair. It's an investment. Unfortunately, a sales tax coincides with a weak economy, but because we have leveraged federal dollars, this is an opportunity."
Paige Greenlee, an attorney, was also sold. "I don't think a tax is unfair." She said a tax right now, "is a little bit difficult to accept, but in the long run it will help more people get to work, and it will provide more jobs to people in the short term. It's probably the right move to make."
Then there were retirees Paul and Lucy Clubb, who'd come to downtown Tampa for (her) jury duty. Paul, especially, just couldn't say enough good things about the Tea Party. If anything was going to get America to return to its senses, the Tea Party would. As you might not have predicted, they were actually thinking about voting for the transit tax.
"I guess I haven't made up my mind fully. We don't need any more taxes, that's for sure -- but I guess if you're going to have modernization and so forth, you do have to have taxes, I'm not sure."
He turns to his wife. "I don't -- Have you....?
Lucy says, "well, maybe if it was available maybe we would be motivated to use it. It might be a good thing to have. The older I get, the more I might use that, as opposed to always having to get in my car and drive. The older you get, getting out there is not always the easiest thing to do."
Still, this just isn't a good year for anything containing the "t" word. If the transit tax does pass this year, there's pretty much no year when it wouldn't gain voter acceptance, but that's a pretty big "if."
Out in Valrico, in the part of this county where there's been a lot of new construction, where a lot of christian fundamentalists moved in (it was these voters who Karl Rove so astutely identified in 2004, helping President George W. Bush win re-election). Their views on the tax were pretty clear. "We're not voting for that," Linda Dunn told me at a pretty heavily trafficked polling site. where she'd come, with her husband, Mike. "If they can't handle their money any better than they are -- No."
"It's seems like a bad time to start something like that, Laura Beck tells me. " When people are already having a hard time keeping their houses and buying groceries and just doing the necessities, it just seems like a bad time."
Her husband, Mike, a government worker, then interjects, talking about the stimulus, "to increase our federal debt two trillion dollars for the future, I don't think it was worth it. My children -- who I have a lot of --" (seven as it happens) "and how much did it help our country. Debt is bad. I understand this is a tax, but --"
Laura, again "if they'd saved the money first, and then did something and said, we've saved this much and now we want to invest it in this way that's different to me than saying, we're going to tax you now, and get started on this thing, and then we're going to have to finish it. And it's going to cost how much more than we thought."
But still, in Valrico, even, I found voters who had just cast a ballot for the tax, based on their belief it would ease congestion and create growth. Planners everywhere are holding their breath, waiting for Tuesday's vote.