ST. PETERSBURG — A growing list of business leaders, mayors and county commissioners, many of them political conservatives, have come out in favor of a 1 percent sales tax increase to fund a massive expansion of the area's transit system.
This week, leaders of the county's Republican Party came out decisively against the Greenlight Pinellas plan, saying it would unduly burden taxpayers and deliver expensive and unnecessary transportation options like a light rail line from St. Petersburg to Clearwater.
A large group that gathered at a monthly meeting of the Pinellas County Republican Party's executive committee Monday voted unanimously to oppose the proposed tax increase, which will go before voters in a Nov. 4 referendum.
“The party officially came out and voted unanimously against it,” said Daryle Hamel, a committee member who presented the resolution.
“I think at that point it's really tough to say there's Republican support. While you may have individual candidates or elected officials support it, I think there's a clear definition that as a party, this is a massive tax increase.”
Prominent Republican officials, such as retiring County Commissioner Susan Latvala, say it's the party activists who are out of step with residents on the Greenlight plan, which is projected to spur economic development in cities across the region.
“They don't represent the general public. They are people interested in and involved in party politics and they're very, very partisan,” Latvala said of the executive committee.
“Greenlight Pinellas will create jobs and stimulate our economy. That's what Republicans want.”
Local elected leaders largely have backed the $2.2 billion plan to replace the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority's property tax with a one-penny sales tax increase to expand bus routes 65 percent and build a 24-mile light-rail link between Clearwater, the Gateway area and St. Petersburg.
If approved by voters, Pinellas County's sales tax would increase to 8 percent, the highest in Florida, though supporters say a portion of that tax is paid by tourists and a property tax that pays for local transit would be eliminated.
City councils in 13 of the county's 24 municipalities have endorsed the plan, with only Seminole voting against it.
Opponents led by the No Tax for Tracks group have criticized PSTA for using public money to promote the plan and question whether the elected officials who have endorsed it genuinely understand the long-term tax burdens.
“I don't think they all understand what they're endorsing,” No Tax spokeswoman Barbara Haselden said.
The official opposition from county Republicans may help get out the anti-tax message before November, Haselden said, but ultimately her group isn't out to gain endorsements from members of either party.
“I don't think this is a partisan issue. This is a pocketbook issue and that brings a lot of people together,” she said.
Greenlight supporters also say party politics have little to do with how people should vote on the plan.
“We really don't see this as a partisan issue. Certainly we would prefer that people see it as a bipartisan issue and make a decision on it based on the plan's merits, not on any kind of ideological or other kinds of considerations,” said Kyle Parks, a spokesman for Friends of Greenlight.
The plan may play a role in upcoming primary elections, though, with Republican county commission candidates divided between supporters and critics.
In the north Pinellas County District 4 Republican primary to replace Latvala, Dunedin Mayor Dave Eggers and retired pediatric dentist Johnny Johnson support the plan, but three other conservative candidates are speaking out against it.
Republican candidates in two other commission races have also taken opposing sides on the issue.