What the Florida midterms tell us about paying for our economic priorities

Traffic backs up on I-275 in Malfunction Junction in Tampa. Times files.

 

There’s a lot to unpack from the midterms.

Will the recounts change the outcome of any of the statewide races?

Can polling find a better model, one that predicts the actual winners?

Will felons who have served their sentences really get their voting rights back?

I’ll leave those to the political experts. Instead, I’m getting my head around what the results tell us about our economic priorities and how we want to pay for them.

Here are three takeaways:

1. For now, we’re okay with taxing ourselves.

Pasco County residents overwhelmingly voted in favor of three separate property taxes increases to improve parks, libraries and fire rescue stations. They also narrowly passed a fourth increase to pay for a jail expansion. Total cost: $241 million.

In Hillsborough, voters passed two additions to the sales tax — an extra half cent for schools and a full cent for transportation. That raises the sales tax to 8.5 percent, the highest of any county in the state.

The transportation victory comes after several failed attempts to raise funds for rail and transit in the Tampa Bay area, including a similar effort in 2010 soundly rejected by Hillsborough voters and the disastrous Greenlight Pinellas campaign in 2014.

It’s a good time to vote on a tax increase. The economy is chugging along. Unemployment is low. Consumers remain fairly confident about the future.

Kyle Simon, 34, who lives in Palma Ceia, said he would have voted in favor of the tax increase anyway, but it certainly helps that people have more money in their pockets.

“It takes the sting out of voting for it,” he said.

The sales tax passed, in part, because residents experience the transportation problems for themselves, not as some far off problem, said Tampa Heights resident Rick Fernandez, who voted for the increase. They get snarled in traffic or can’t walk safely to where they want to go.

“We need it and we weren’t getting it done,” said Fernandez, 63, who was a registered Republican until 2016, when he switched to be a Democrat. “So eventually people power takes over where the elected officials are failing you.”

2. But we aren’t so fond of Tallahassee politicians taxing us.

Voters easily passed Amendment 5, which will require the Legislature to muster a two-thirds super-majority if it wants to impose, approve or raise state taxes or fees. Blocking proposed tax hikes will be much easier now. The amendment does not apply to local fees or taxes, such as funding for schools.

Voting for local tax increases, and at the same time making it harder for the state to levy taxes, makes sense. Traditionally, voters have been more likely to support tax increases if they have a clear grasp of what the money will pay for and that it stays close to home. We don’t like far-away politicians spending our taxes on things we never see or don’t understand.

3. Enough of us were feeling bullish to forgo a tax break.

Amendment 1 would have increased the homestead exemption by an additional $25,000, saving many homeowners about $200 to $350 a year depending on the value of their home and where they live. Of the 12 proposed constitutional amendments, it is the only one that failed.

Now, most voters — 58 percent — favored the amendment. It was popular, just not popular enough to get over the required 60 percent threshold.

The amendment language was a bit confusing, which likely didn’t help. Many voters, however, appeared to heed the cries of local officials, who said they might have to cut services or raise rates to make up for lost revenue.

Fernandez said he wasn’t tempted by the tax break.

“It felt like we would be starving local governments, and I didn’t want to be a part of that,” he said. “… I love Tampa and I am willing to pay the little extra that is being asked of me to allow the area to thrive and grow.”

The results show he isn’t alone.

Contact Graham Brink at gbrink@tampabay.com. Follow @GrahamBrink.

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