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Thursday, Oct 02, 2014
Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Tax-hiking Wilson invites GOP primary

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NEW PORT RICHEY — In the interest of bringing certainty to a chaotic world, let us establish this at the outset: To win re-election in 2014, Henry Wilson Jr., the unexpected county commissioner, will have to clear a primary election hurdle.

“I’m very upset with Henry,” says Bill Bunting, Pasco’s Republican state committeeman, “as a lot of people are.”

The challenge, he says, will come from someone well known and widely respected in west Pasco County, someone with an established record of fiscal conservatism, someone who has held office in the past. Someone, it bears noting, not yet ready to announce his candidacy.

But before Wilson takes this personally, in his next breath, Bunting removes at least a little of the sting saying, “I think there will be primaries all over. I think there will be a lot of primaries.” It’s just politics, commissioner.

Still, the notion that Wilson has a target pinned to his chest is interesting, and indicative of a local Republican Party happy to be in the embrace of the Taxed-Enough-Already crowd, a relationship that plainly puts them in tension with Wilson, who has demonstrated by word and deed throughout 2013 that he’s not allergic to tax hikes.

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In February, Wilson supported failed efforts to double the tourist tax, voted in October for a budget that raised property taxes for the first time in a decade (primarily to fund new hires and across-the-board raises), and, despite email running 70-30 against it, waffled on boosting the local-option gas tax between three cents to a nickel.

Ultimately, he provided the blocking vote, joining Jack Mariano in a 2-3 “victory” — four votes were needed to do the deed — but last month agreed to reconsider when the county undertook budget negotiations again next summer.

Nevermind, apparently, what he told GOP grassroots activists at their August meeting: “You remember what he said then?” Bunting says. “Not one penny.”

This is what Wilson, 40, said about that the other afternoon, sipping a Sprite — they were out of the hard stuff, Dr Pepper — at a popular Mitchell Plaza bakery/cafe: “I agreed to put [the gas tax] back on the table to keep the conversation going. ... I don’t want to be like Washington, D.C., where they can’t get anything done because there’s no talk and no compromise.”

Wilson’s preference is for a roads-and-bridges property tax line item, or a fee on the sale of real estate, but he couldn’t get support for either without agreeing to revisit a gas-tax hike.

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Even if you think that sounds reasonable, the trouble, especially in a Republican primary, is obvious: “Wilson raises taxes” fits neatly on a mailer and catches the eye. Not so much “Yes, Wilson raises taxes, but only a few of them, and only a little bit, and not on everybody, and anyway the money is targeted to specific demonstrated needs ... well, most of the time.”

But let’s not write him off just yet, OK? Wilson surprised us before.

When he emerged from the ranks of Pasco’s Republican Executive Committee in 2010 to take on Michael Cox, it was difficult to imagine him as anything but GOP cannon fodder, a loyal doughboy willing to be first out of the trenches, if only to achieve the goal of letting no Democrat run unopposed in Pasco County.

For all his pluck, it seemed Wilson might as well have taken on The Cliffs of Insanity: Facing 10-fold deficits in campaign cash, name recognition and public policy achievement, Wilson’s climb wasn’t simply uphill; it was vertical.

Well. What they say about the lottery — you can’t win if you don’t play — turned out to be supremely applicable to the 2010 District 4 race. The (R) behind Wilson’s name was a solid-gold scratch-off card. Indeed, confronted by a midday voter-turnout report showing a GOP tsunami, Cox felt like a beachfront resort: “I knew I was in trouble.”

Four years later, many of the dynamics fueling the Republican surge are in place again, or still: Sluggish economy, rising federal debt and runaway government spending that favors an entrenched public sector while private sector jobs and wages stagnate.

Add the horrific, ongoing revelations about the nightmare Affordable Care Act and it’s understandable why recent polls indicate voters have a slight preference for the Republican brand.

Which is another way of saying in 2014, the breeze will again be at the back of the GOP’s District 4 nominee.

And also that you shouldn’t bet against Henry Wilson Jr.

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