Editorial | Manatee County's message on sales tax referendum failed to inspire voters

June 19, 2013 

Manatee County voters spoke loud and clear on Tuesday by thrashing the referendum on a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for indigent health care.

The county commission likely doomed the referendum by seemingly rushing the issue to a special election and then only approving the ballot placement on a 4-3 vote in March. Unity, in the form of a unanimous vote, would have sent a strong message. Deep division sent an entirely different one.

And the electorate responded with a hue and cry over the past few months. The relentless criticism sometimes crossed the line into pure fiction -- the recent abortion claim being the most outrageous.

The other ballot issue, property tax breaks for companies creating jobs, passed, improving the county's chances at attracting new jobs. Without this game-changing economic development tool that surrounding counties enjoy, Manatee would have remained at a competitive disadvantage. But no more.

Many county residents want a deeper public discussion of the entire issue of health care for the poor and indigent, and about the depletion of the county's health care trust fund, founded from the sale of the then-county owned Manatee Memorial Hospital some three decades ago.

While those community discussions have been going on for years, with the half-cent sales tax first proposed back in 2008 by a health care task force, the county did not do enough over the past few months to inspire community confidence in the overall plan.

The defeat puts county commissioners in a difficult position. In 2015, the trust fund will be empty. How will the county pay? Those costs won't disappear, and the county has a moral and legal obligation to fulfill.

The lone alternative at this stage is an increase in property taxes -- which would have fallen dramatically under county Administrator Ed Hunzeker's sweeping outline for change in county revenue sources.

Here again, sales tax critics correctly pointed out that an ad valorem tax plan did not appear on the ballot alongside the sales tax -- and for good reason. It's against Florida's Constitution to muddy referendum waters with more than one issue.

Those opponents also correctly charged there was no guarantee the county would cut property taxes had the sales tax issue passed. While that's true, Hunzeker's budget proposal includes those cuts, and the commission would have been vilified and deposed had those not been approved. Those political realities didn't matter.

Proponents of the sales tax promoted the idea of property tax reductions -- but the message failed to resonate without an ironclad guarantee.

There are political lessons here that the county and health care community cannot ignore in the future. The discussion should focus on the primary issue, indigent health care, and how to lower costs and provide accountability.

Now county government can discard the current budget blueprint. Deep property tax cuts are certainly out of the question.

On Thursday, the Manatee County Sheriff's Office and the county's other constitutional offices will present their budget requests. That afternoon meeting will be followed by an evening public discussion of the budget. Both promise to be intense.

Opponents of property tax exemptions to spur the creation of jobs made the argument that the free enterprise system should control economic growth, not government. That's a fine ideological position but ignores the pragmatic one.

The market is already dominated by incentive programs from state and local governments around the country -- providing a wide variety of incentives to lure companies to relocate and expand.

Gov. Rick Scott preaches this gospel of incentives like no other. As the very foundation of his administration's economic policy, Florida awarded more than $130 million in economic incentives in 2011 and 2012.

Manatee County's newly approved program pales in comparison, but like the state's, it requires company performance on meeting job creation goals before benefits are awarded. Those jobs must be skilled and in high-impact sectors.

Voters were wise to put Manatee County in a competitive position.

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