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Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Fired-up Pasco GOP sparks gas-tax war

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Published:   |   Updated: August 17, 2013 at 07:09 PM

SHADY HILLS — Thursday night, in a Word of Life activities center that does a pretty good impression of a sauna, the Pasco Republican Party struck flint in the Gas Tax War of 2013. And anyone who thought it was hot in the sanctuary ain’t seen nuttin’ yet.

In a smothering atmosphere that was part summer tent revival, part political rally, about 120 members of the Pasco GOP took a moment from beating the air with candidates’ flyers to unanimously oppose any rise in the county’s gasoline tax. Nope. Not a nickel. Not even a penny.

“In the past, we’ve always waited until the public hearings,” explained Jim Mathieu, the recently ascendant county Republican chairman and candidate in the state House District 36 special election, “but this year we’re not waiting around.”

It’s not just talk and matching T-shirts, either. They also voted to put their money where their impatience is, mounting a kill-the-gas-tax advertising campaign with what top officials said would be an unprecedented raid on the party’s war chest.

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Why all the angst? Turns out it’s not just about an extra five cents a gallon (or some smaller amount if the board can’t muster the necessary four votes) coming out of individual’s pockets, they say. It’s about the higher prices Pasco residents will pay when anyone from the plumber to the Papa John’s deliverer passes on the cost of coming to your house. It’s about the fewer number of their penny-watching neighbors who will go out to eat, hurting restaurateurs and Penny-for-Pasco receipts.

It’s also about the single mom traveling between two low-wage part-time jobs (her hours cut because of Obamacare and still facing the individual mandate). And ญญ— and! — it’s about former boards failing to prepare for difficult times by cutting millage rates too much when they could have been funding reserves during all those years of surging property values.

We pause here while you pick yourself up off the floor.

OK. Finally, it’s also about administering a come-to-Norquist (wait for it) epiphany for a panel that is 100 percent Republican but lately seems inclined to behave about 80 percent Democrat.

“When I elected five Republicans to the board of county commissioners,” said Tim Newlon, an accountant and mayor of San Antonio, “higher taxes is not something I thought I’d have to worry about.”

“We have commissioners with (R) next to their names,” said Bill Bunting, Pasco’s GOP state committeeman, “and they don’t know what it means. We have to let them know.”

Henry Wilson, the first-term commissioner and — as if he’d signed tax-reformer Grover Norquist’s litmus pledge (there it is) — the lone anti-tax holdout, led a brief tour of the county’s budget, taking pains to note what a relatively small portion of Pasco’s outlays derive from the general — that is, discretionary — fund, the only slice fueled by property taxes. Can’t figure out what the county needs with a bicycle/pedestrian coordinator? “Neither can I,” Wilson said. But, he said, the money comes from a federal and state grant; striking the position (and dozens similarly funded) would not affect the millage rate.

But, Wilson noted, the county also splashes around in the trust-fund pool, using optional, set-apart taxes to pay for fire-rescue, tourism development and certain infrastructure improvements and maintenance, to name just a few where the board’s activities influence the Pasco taxpayer’s bottom line. Don’t like their plans? Here’s an idea:

“If you don’t show, they don’t know,” Wilson said. “If you’re opposed and you don’t let them know, shame on you.”

The group that showed Thursday was definitely fired up, and it all came down to this:

“They always come back for more,” Mathieu said. “I’m opposed (to the gas tax) because once they pass it, it’s there forever.”

Got it. On your side. But tell me the one again about how they cut taxes too much in the first place. I need to slap my other knee.

tjackson@tampatrib.com

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