Orange County mayor wants to discuss raising the sales tax for transportation again

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Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings wants to give a sales tax to fund transportation another go.

But based on the voters’ negative reaction last time around, it’s not clear if other politicians are willing to go along.

The mayor set a discussion for this morning with Orange County commissioners to consider an appeal to voters in November to hike the sales tax by one cent, with proceeds marked for improving a chronically snarled network of roads and rail.

In a memo to the board late last month, Demings said the transportation challenges around Orlando will only get worse without a dependable funding source to move the millions of annual visitors and the growing number of residents.

He led the ill-fated campaign two years ago to increase the county’s sales tax from 6.5% to 7.5% with revenue from the extra 1% aimed at creating better and safer roads, more punctual Lynx bus service and an expanded SunRail commuter line.

Voters trounced the measure with 58% voting no.

In his memo to the board, the mayor attributed the sales-tax defeat in 2022 to “various factors, including inflation, significant increases in housing costs and the devastating impact of Hurricane Ian on more than 80,000 residents.”

Ian struck the county about a month before the election, causing property losses estimated at $243 million.

In 2022, the board was divided, 4-3, when asked to put the tax on the ballot with commissioners Nicole Wilson, Emily Bonilla and Victoria Siplin saying no. The lone change on the commission since the sales-tax defeat is District 6 Commissioner Michael Scott, who succeeded Siplin, unable to seek another four years because of term limits.

Wilson said she’s willing to listen again but she heard voters speak loudly and clearly in 2022.

“I think we really need to go back and do a thorough post-mortem because the reason why the last one died can’t be simplified as a reaction to inflation,” she said, noting that a school tax passed in Orange and in other counties that same election. “We need to do a better job of understanding what the needs are and what people would be willing to pay for.”

Commissioner Mayra Uribe supported the tax referendum in 2022 after an oversight committee was added to keep an eye on spending and after the board shaved a decade off the proposed life of the tax increase — from 30 to 20 years.

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But Uribe said 20 years may still be too long.

She said she could be persuaded to put the measure on the ballot again if the plan identifies specific projects.

“Last time they didn’t want to get into project specifics. You know, there was SunRail; there was Lynx; and there was this and there was that, but there was never really any hardcore information on what was going to be done,” she said. “If we’re coming back with the same package, same talk, same ideas, we’ll end up with the same result.”

The proposed penny-per-dollar increase on taxable goods and services was estimated to raise $600 million a year for 20 years. Advocates estimated that 51% of the tax revenue would be paid by visitors who vacation in Orlando.

Demings and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, who co-chaired the push to pass the 2022 tax, built a diverse coalition of support, including business group, labor unions, the League of Women Voters of Orange County and nonprofits.

Transit, housing and climate activists also backed the tax plan, especially the promised pedestrian safety projects.

Orange County’s $6.7 billion budget for fiscal year 2023-34 includes about $100 million for transportation, described by Demings as an interim plan which “does not come close to fully addressing our $21 billion in transportation needs, but it does take a step forward by focusing on some of our most immediate needs for transportation.”

Commissioner Emily Bonilla, a tax opponent in 2022, said the campaign to pass a tax this November is already behind schedule.

“We should probably have had these discussions last year,” she said. “I wasn’t happy with what the plan was the last time around and we had time to think and work on it. I just don’t think there’s time even to entertain it right now.”

Bonilla also said the financial outlook for many people in Central Florida hasn’t brightened all that much.

“People are still dealing with rising rents,” she said.

But Brian Henley, who led the opposition group Ax the Tax in 2022, said he wouldn’t be out front this time.

“I definitely think we have infrastructure problems that need to be addressed,” he said, stopping short of endorsing a surcharge on goods and services for transportation. “I just hope the money is used wisely if a tax is passed.”

In March 2022, Orange County commissioners were provided with a binder filled with 1,153 pages of proposed projects, reports, projections and consultant analyses to help persuade them the county needs the sales-tax increase to fix transportation deficits.

But voters have long been skeptical. In 2003, Orange County rejected a half-cent increase to the sales tax for transportation needs.

That initiative, dubbed Mobility 2020, would have helped pay for $8.7 billion in transit improvements over 20 years. About 54% of county voters said no.