Greenlight Pinellas, the educational campaign promoting Pinellas County mass transit upgrades, may be doing so in violation of Florida law.
In a letter dated Tuesday from State Sen. Jeff Brandes to Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad, the St. Petersburg Republican asks the agency to review the operation launched by the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.
Greenlight Pinellas was set up to inform residents about the November ballot measure asking voters to approve a once-cent sales tax increase.
The additional tax, a 14 percent increase from 7 to 8 percent, is to be used to pay for expanded bus service countywide, as well as the construction of a light-rail corridor between St. Petersburg and Clearwater Beach.
Critics point out that the increase will make Pinellas county sales taxes the highest in the state.
Among Brandes’ concerns are the purchase of novelties such as pens and necklaces as promotional materials. He also points out there is an independent “Yes for Greenlight” political campaign recently formed to advocate for the referendum.
Brandes, as a “steward of public tax money,” points out that it is illegal for lawmakers and their staff to “expend funds on behalf of, or advocating for, an initiative that is political in nature and pending consideration by referendum of the electorate.”
“Local media attention surrounding the ‘Greenlight Pinellas’ educational campaign has raised several critical questions that suggest potential violation of state law,” Brandes writes.
“I am requesting that the Florida Department of Transportation Inspector General immediately conduct a review of the ‘Greenlight Pinellas’ educational campaign,” he continues. “Specifically, I ask that the Inspector General review the expenditure by the PSTA of approximately $800,000.00 for promotions of this campaign to determine if the expenditure constitutes a violation of state law.”
Brandes concludes that the “wasteful use of taxpayers’ hard-earned tax monies” and that PSTA advocating what amounts to a political agenda will “erode the fundamental principles of representative democracy and reduce the legitimacy of voter referenda.”
Update – 6:50 p.m.: In a written statement per Mitch Perry of Creative Loafing: PSTA spokesman Bob Lasher said, “PSTA has always, and continues to conduct its Greenlight Pinellas Educational outreach with full transparency and in full compliance with the law. We are proud of our efforts and are confident that any inquiries by the Department of Transportation will only confirm these facts.
“Every Greenlight presentation we make highlights the decision Pinellas voters will make this November – whether or not to approve the 1% sales tax for substantially improved public transportation.”
“PSTA and its Board of Directors have an important obligation to inform the citizens as to what they will be asked to decide, prior to the November 4, 2014 ballot.”