MANATEE -- A new flier implying the proposed half-cent sales tax increase to fund indigent health care could be used to pay for abortions is causing a stir before the June 18 referendum.
It angered health care professionals and shocked even the Tea Party, which also opposes the tax hike.
Brochures mailed this week from Manatee Against Taxation, a political action committee formed to oppose the tax hike, display photos of toddlers and infants beside text that reads: "With no prohibitions on funds being used for reproductive health services, approval of the indigent health care sales tax could lead to taxpayer dollars funding abortion."
The referendum asks voters to decide if the county should levy a one-half cent sales surtax for a 10-year period commencing Jan. 1, 2014, with proceeds funding health care, including services for the indigent.
Michele Garden, clinic director of the Galvano One-Stop Center in Bradenton, which serves poor and indigent residents, said the claim has no basis in fact."There is zero truth to this whatsoever," Garden said.
County funds are not allowed to be used for abortion services under current contract agreements, she said. Manatee County "does not pay for it now. They're not going to pay for it later," she said.
Eric Robinson, of Manatee Against Taxation, defended the brochure, saying it could happen.
"There's nothing in the language on the ballot that would preclude paying for abortions," he said.
Nick Azzara, Manatee County's information outreach coordinator, said contract agreements between the county and local care providers are specific. County money only covers what is defined as emergency or "medically necessary" care. He said abortion services don't fit the definition.
"A person cannot request an abortion any more than they can request plastic surgery and expect county funds to be used for the procedure," he said.
Robinson doesn't buy it.
"The county has a vested interest in wanting the tax to go into effect," he said. "The government has a history of saying things will be one way and they wind up being another way."
The idea of tying abortion rights to the sales tax issue surprised another group actively opposed to the sales tax hike.
"I never even heard of that," said Steve Vernon of Tea Party Manatee. "I'm amazed."
He said Tea Party Manatee has never considered it. He said he couldn't figure out a link between the half-cent sales tax and abortion.
"I have no idea," Vernon said. "I never thought about it."
The Galvano Center's Garden says the brochure's language, "goes beyond down and dirty. It's unscrupulous and filthy," he said.
Jonathan Fleece, health care attorney and member of Healthy Manatee, a group favoring the sales tax, called the brochure an "unscrupulous piece of political garbage."
His group's message is clear. "It will allow property taxes to go down," he said.
While property tax relief was included in the proposed budget unveiled Tuesday, county commissioners must still approve it.
Healthy Manatee has scheduled a news conference for 10:30 a.m. Friday to protest the tactics of Manatee Against Taxation. Representatives from the League of Women Voters, the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference will attend, a news release said.
Early voting on the sales tax and a second question on whether to allow the county to offer tax breaks to new and expanding businesses, is "going real well," the Manatee supervisor of elections said Thursday.
About 1,100 people had voted early at the sole early voting site at the supervisor of elections office, 600 301 Blvd. W., Suite 108, according to Mike Bennett.
About 13,000, or 50 percent, of the absentee ballots sent out have been returned, he said.
Voters using the new "ballot-on-demand" equipment during early voting seem to be satisfied, and there have been no glitches so far, Bennett said.
Early voting continues 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the elections office Friday. The last early voting day is 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.
Polls will be closed Sunday and Monday. Polls will be open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Election Day this Tuesday.
Absentee ballots should be returned to the supervisor of elections office any time voting is being conducted.
For information, call the elections office at 941-741-3823, or consult the website votemanatee.com.
-- Herald reporter Sara Kennedy contributed to this report.