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Stacked Deck in Upcoming Special Referendums

When Manatee voters go to the polls on June 18 for two referendum votes in a special election, they'll do so after having been bombarded by hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of largely unopposed political advertising. In each ballot item, the interests who would most benefit from the initiatives passing have spent big to give one side of the story, while the local media has done little to highlight competing views.
In one referendum, voters will be asked to decide whether to impose an extra half-cent sales tax on themselves in order to maintain the status quo in Manatee County's healthcare spending. There's been practically no discussion, however, as to whether the status quo should be maintained in the first place. Voters have also been misinformed that a yes vote is akin to cutting their own property taxes, while it has also been implied that the only alternative would be to raise property taxes should the initiative fail.
Of course, none of this is true. However, the hospitals, physicians and Fortune 500 companies who benefit most from the way we currently do things, would like nothing more than to keep them just as they are. That's why they've funded a political committee that seems to be knowingly disseminating disinformation in order to muddle the issue.
Voters will also be asked to decide whether property tax abatements should be added to the incentives that the county uses to encourage relocation or expansion. Despite the fact that the county already has a model incentive program that pays companies in arrears for creating above-average paying jobs, voters are being told that a yes vote, is simply voting for creating more jobs in Manatee County. 
The only argument made for the abatements is that other counties use them, so we need to fork over such perks if we want to get businesses to come to Manatee. There's been no discussion as to how effective the controversial policy has been for those other counties in the long term, how the success will be monitored here, how we'll know if we're simply giving tax breaks for things that would have happened anyway, or whether the lost revenues are made up for by the supposed growth.
The campaign in favor of the measure is funded almost entirely by the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corporation – the same public-private partnership that is asking for the abatements. As their success is largely seen to be demonstrated by the number of relocation announcements, ground breakings and ribbon cuttings that take place, clearly they have a vested interest in seeing the referendum succeed. I'm sure that if I ran the EDC, I'd want that tool in my box. As a taxpayer, I'm less confident it's a good idea, especially since we already have a successful incentives program that offers more accountability.
The problem is not that either measure is inherently bad, it's that the debate has been either non-existent or skewed in favor of the prevailing interest's first choice. The EDC lists the two largest newspapers in the area as corporate partners and the hospitals are generous sources of ad revenue to most of the major local media outlets. Add that on top of hundreds of thousands of dollars in deliberately one-sided and often outright misleading advertising and the average voter might find it difficult to get a good handle on the issues. Then again, I suppose that's the point of waging such campaigns. 



Muddling Manatee's Healthcare Sales Tax Issue

Published Thursday, May 23, 2013 12:11 am
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at dennis.maley@thebradentontimes.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.


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