On Tuesday, three Manatee County Commissioners (Gallen, Baugh and DiSabatino) once again expressed great hesitancy in moving forward with a half-cent sales tax referendum. We share their concerns and think voters should be very skeptical about a plan to make such drastic changes in the funding of health care services at a time when such a broad expansion of public health care is occurring at the state and federal level.
We are told that the tax is ostensibly to fund indigent health care, as well as those who are termed medically poor (uninsured and earning 200 percent of the poverty level or less), while also reducing property taxes. In fact, when dissenting commissioners question the specificity of health care expenditures, they are told by the county administrator that such matters are all but irrelevant, as the plan can be changed at their will, into perpetuity. He then says this is really about cutting property taxes.
The problem is that state statute prevents the county from offering a referendum asking simply to approve levying a half-cent sales tax in exchange for lowering the property tax millage rate. It can, however, utilize revenues from such a sales tax for health care services. A bait-and-switch is defined as “a deceptive merchandising practice where one product is advertised at a low price to get people's attention (the bait), but pressure is applied to get the customer to purchase a more expensive item.”
By dangling a property tax cut in front of voters, but making them choose to accept a sales tax in order to get it, we think it's fair to ask whether the county is doing a bait-and-switch of its own. As Commissioner DiSabatino pointed out, there is nothing preventing this or future boards from later raising the millage rate. The Sheriff's office is still reeling from nearly $5 million in budget cuts, and county EMS workers recently voted to form a union to deal with pay and other issues. Other expected public services like libraries have been drastically cut back in recent years to balance withered budgets.
If this or a future commission ever votes to raise millage rates back to or above their current levels – a very real possibility given our circumstances – then the public will in fact have gone for the advertised low-priced item (the property tax cut), while having been stuck with something considerably more expensive (funding local health care through a sales tax).
The state legislature is still deciding on how it will deal with Medicaid under the new federal law, aka Obamacare. In fact, there is a bill in the Florida Senate that would expand the state's Healthy Kids plan into a Healthy Families version, which would include adults unable to obtain insurance. It has already won support from the Florida Hospital Association and other health care groups. In short, there are too many unknowns right now to thoughtfully address this issue.
We feel that that the August 2014 referendum suggested by Commissioner Gallen is best suited to the current situation. Not only will it save hundreds of thousands of dollars by piggybacking on a scheduled election, but it will allow for more time to educate the public, while making sure optimal cost controls are in place to ensure that they are getting the most bang for their buck. Meanwhile, state and federal issues will quite likely have been worked out by an August 2014 date, providing a clearer picture of what is most needed.
Commissioners who favor a 2013 date say they are concerned about collecting the revenue in advance of the corpus' expiration may be counting their chickens before they hatch. If a confused and skeptical electorate rejects this referendum, they will not only be out the revenues associated with the new tax, but will have wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars on a special election at a time when they can scarcely afford it.
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