A fat bank account may not be enough to propel Greenlight Pinellas to victory

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A poll released Friday shows the Greenlight Pinellas transit initiative headed for defeat. If that’s the case, it’s a terrible waste of an awful lot of money.

With just more than a week left until the election, Friends of Greenlight, the committee raking in funds to push a one-penny sales tax increase to certain victory, has pulled in more than $1.1 million in campaign cash.

That’s a lot of cheddar. But the opposition group, No Tax for Tracks is leading the charge by 11 points according to a survey by St. Pete Polls. Never mind the fact the group has only managed to fundraise less than a tenth what Greenlight Pinellas has brought in since March.

No Tax for Tracks has used its modest campaign budget of just under $90,000 so far on mailers, yard signs and bumper stickers and some other means of advertisement. But mostly all the group has to do is remind voters, especially those who aren’t likely transit users, that Greenlight Pinellas is, as they describe it, a 14 percent sales tax increase and would make it the highest in the state. They do that by knocking on doors. They do that with controversial video clips portraying Greenlight talking heads as Hitler patsies. They do that wrangling country music stars into writing a disturbing Nashville ditty. And so far, the grassroots machine seems to be inching closer to its goal of sending Greenlight Pinellas to a teary grave.

The Greenlight Pinellas plan would replace the portion of property taxes that currently fund public transportation in the county with the added one-penny sales tax. It would immediately expand bus service and eventually provide Pinellas with a passenger rail line connecting downtown St. Pete to downtown Clearwater.

Wealthy companies have dumped thousands and thousands into the campaign with the promise of economic development, better access to quality employees and happier employees. During the latest reporting period, Suntrust Bank dumped $15,000 into the campaign. Wells Fargo kicked in $10,000 and the company HDR Engineering cut a check for a whopping $25,000. All three of Tampa Bay’s sporting teams – the Rays, Bucs and Lightning – have all cut checks for $25,000 to the Greenlight campaign. Why would such a diverse group all come running with open checkbooks if there wasn’t the promise of a return on investment?

The argument is that return is economic development. But if No Tax for Tracks prevails the monetary evidence will prove moot.

No Tax for Tracks has said from the beginning all they have to do is tell voters Greenlight is a tax that will hurt their wallets. The rest is just details. Greenlight has spent years, literally, formulating the perfect message to deliver to voters to make the tax more palatable. They thought they were taking a page out of Hillsborough County’s book on what NOT to do. Hillsborough’s 2010 transit referendum came with vague details about how the one-penny sales tax increase would be used. A group similar to No Tax for Tracks spearheaded, like the Pinellas one, by Tea Partiers.

Pinellas vowed not to make that mistake and began in 2011 by holding a series of stakeholder meetings to feel out the community – see what they wanted in a mass transit system. That led to the Alternatives Analysis that eventually morphed into what’s on the November 4 ballot. They’ve bought loads of signs, wrapped buses with their message, targeted TV ads to about every demographic possible and bombarded mailboxes with positive mailers. They’ve gained support from a boat load of Republican elected officials in order to label the effort bi-partisan.

But will that all be enough to propel the measure to victory? The agency that stands to benefit from Greenlight, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, has played into the outstretched arms and cackling faces of No Tax for Tracks through a couple of scandals. The most recent being email correspondence between CEO Brad Miller and his staff regarding a $350,000 federal grant intended to promote safety and security on buses. That money was ultimately used to promote Greenlight. While it was damning enough from the get-go to force PSTA to return the money, things got worse when the uncovered emails showed Miller not only knew ads paid for by the Department of Homeland Security grant money would be used for Greenlight, he straight up instructed them to.

How much is that worth to an opposition campaign. If the recent poll is any indication, it’s plenty.

It’s also worth noting, most of the money No Tax for Tracks has raised has come from two wealthy donors – activist Elizabeth Burgess and jewelry artist Richard Canary. And the group is small. Two faces have been behind its effort from the beginning – spokesperson Barbara Haseldon and brain surgeon blogger David McKalip. McKalip donated $500 to the campaign along with another mainstream supporter, Tom Rask, during the latest reporting period. In all McKalip has donated $3,700 to NTFT as well as about $1,000 worth of in-kind services through advertising. Rask has donated a little over $1,400.

Greenlight supporters will probably be sobbing into their beers election night if the referendum fails, but that defeat could serve as a lesson for any other grassroots campaigns out there. Sometimes money doesn’t prevail. Maybe they should take lessons from the Tea Party.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.