War of words: New polling language suggests voters disapprove FL transit plan


By William Patrick | Florida Watchdog

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — It’s often said that some sporting events are decided by inches. If public polling were a game, outcomes would be determined by words.

If the same is true for ballot voting, then one of Florida‘s most populous counties could soon be on the hook for billions of dollars in new taxes.

TAXES: A new poll suggests clarifying a public transit tax increase in Pinellas County would lead voters to disapprove of the multi-billion plan.

The most recent poll gauging public support for a $1.7 billion proposed light rail project in Pinellas County — west Tampa Bay, encompassing St. Petersburg and Clearwater — shows 61 percent disapproval for the required sales tax increase needed to fund the 30 year transit plan, known as the Pinellas Greenlight Plan.

The result is a major swing away from previous polls suggesting majority public support, and spells trouble for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. PSTA has spent $400,000 of public funding to promote its Greenlight plan.

The new poll was commissioned by Dr. David McKalip, a St. Petersburg neurosurgeon, who also contributes to a group opposed to the 24-mile light rail and expanded bus service plan, No Tax for Tracks.

“A January 22 poll shows the Greenlight Pinellas campaign is on shaky ground with 60.9% of likely voters saying they would not support a hike of sales tax to build a train,” reads a statement accompanying the poll’s results on McKalip’s website, Sun Beam Times.

Previous polls conducted by the Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9, and AM 820 News Tampa Bay show support for the tax increase.

In December 2012, the area news outlets asked respondents whether they supported “spending public or tax money to bring light rail mass transit to parts of the Tampa Bay area.” Sixty percent said yes.

A year later, 55 percent of 625 registered Pinellas County voters approved — a 5 percent decline. The margin of error was plus or minus 5.7 percent.

What makes McKalip’s poll different from the previous surveys is the addition, or clarification, of two points: the 1-cent proposed countywide sales tax increase is, in other words, also a 14 percent increase in the area sales tax rate; and, if passed, Pinellas would have the highest sales tax rate in Florida, at 8 percent.

After adding that information, only a little more than half of the transit plan’s supporters, 55 percent, said they still supported the tax increase.

Some proponents of the Pinellas Greenlight Plan are calling McKalip’s poll misleading.

“The polling results based on those questions is not a surprise,” Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch told the St. Petersburg Times. “Our focus will be to give voters the full package of information about what Greenlight Pinellas is about.”

Welch is also the chairman of PSTA’s governing board.

When asked to provide independent analyses substantiating sufficient transit demand to justify the level of the tax increase — about $100 million a year — PSTA external affairs officer Bob Lasher offered Watchdog.org two studies: an alternative analysis, or study identifying “premium transit options,” and a bus study. Both were completely or in part funded by PSTA.

In the end, voters will see no mention of McKalip’s alternative phrasing. The county commission has already approved the November ballot language.

What’s left is for the opposing sides to persuade, or “educate,” the voting public. Interested realtors and development firms are reportedly raising $1 million for the pro-Greenlight marketing effort.

Watchdog.org has learned No Tax for Tracks has raised $22,000 in the last two weeks.

McKalip’s poll was conducted by StPetePolls.org on Jan. 22 with 2,114 registered Pinellas County voters responding. The sample size was weighted to account for political party, race, sex and age demographics.

Contact William Patrick at wpatrick@watchdog.org or follow Florida Watchdog on Twitter at @watchdogfla Like Watchdog.org? Click HERE to get breaking news alerts in YOUR state!

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