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Pinellas Commission narrows legislative priorities to four

Pinellas County commissioners considered a list of five legislative priorities Tuesday, covering topics ranging from protecting community redevelopment areas to reforming Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.

In a shift from previous legislative priorities, the county seeks to limit the number of priorities it advocates in Tallahassee during the 2019 Legislative Session to just five. The idea is to give the county a better shot at seeing its priorities implemented by specifically directing focus.

In 2017, the county had dozens of priorities.

The county initially proposed five top priorities including removing restrictions on residence for appointees to the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board, supporting regional transportation coordinating and funding, clarifying new allowable uses for Tourist Development Tax funds, protecting CRAs and clarifying language in the Stand Your Ground law.

The board moved forward with four of those priorities, but removed the TDC funding issue to “monitoring.”

“I would be concerned about having anything go to Tallahassee again,” said Pinellas County Commissioner Pat Gerard on the idea of encouraging state lawmakers to make any additional changes to TDC uses.

One of the primary potential uses for TDC dollars, which historically have been used solely for projects directly related to tourism development, is for transportation infrastructure.

The thinking goes, tourists use the county’s transportation network when they’re visiting and it’s a crucial component of hosting visitors in the region. So why not let the taxes they pay during hotel stays help fund improvements?

“Clearly the state is going to ask for more and more and more contributions from local governments, surprise, on transportation infrastructure issues,” Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long said. “If we’re not ready now to step up and have this conversation we better get ready.”

Long and others agreed the county should spearhead conversations about using some of those funds for transportation projects.

The county earlier this year hired the Southern Strategy law group to undertake lobbying activities with the state legislature and those efforts will include, based on the preliminary list of legislative priorities, funding for new projects.

One of the priorities is reactionary. During the last two Legislative Sessions, lawmakers have filed a host of bills that threaten to cede local government’s authority to govern itself.

There have been proposals to repeal regulations protecting trees, pre-emption attempts to keep local governments from banning single-use plastic bags and, most recently, an attempt to gut community redevelopment areas.

CRAs are a popular government funding tool that allows cities to create a geographic area where property tax dollars, capped at current rates, go into a special fund for economic development projects as property taxes rise. The city or county continues to collect property taxes up to the cap. As taxes increase, that excess goes into a Tax Incremental Fund.

The Legislature unsuccessfully tried to impose a new law that would heavily regulate such CRAs and TIFs and eventually phase them out altogether.

Pinellas County’s priority is an attempt to preserve its local autonomy over collecting local taxes.

While most of the county’s initial proposals made it past the first governmental checkpoint, not everyone on the Board of County Commissioners was convinced the priorities were exactly where they need to be.

“I’m not ready to say, for me, that these are the five most important things,” Commissioner Dave Eggers said. “Unfunded mandates, beach renourishment, Tampa Bay Water, affordable housing; to me those are things that are far more important.”

The board will discuss priorities again at the upcoming Pinellas County Legislative Delegation meeting 9:30 a.m. Dec. 4 at the County Courthouse in downtown Clearwater.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She 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 die-hard 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 contentious issues surrounding transit. 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 a devoted wife and mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder.

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