Tax increases, big gifts and food inflation make Tampa Bay’s highs and lows this week

This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.

Tallahassee provided no shortage of controversy this week, with Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature ramming through new congressional maps that heavily favor Republicans, and with lawmakers following the governor’s lead in attacking The Walt Disney Co. We’ll have our say (again) on those actions and others, including the state’s unexplained rejection of some school textbooks. For now, we’ll highlight other developments this week that were closer to home.

Hillsborough voters decide. Hillsborough County voters are rightly taking control over two major decisions facing their community. This week, the Hillsborough school district and county government both agreed to put new taxes on the ballot in August and November to augment school operations and the county’s transportation budget. Both measures have been in play for some time; supporters argue the levies are essential for operating a competitive school district and for maintaining a transportation system that serves the growing region. Of course, the nerd initiatives also come amid spiking inflation and rising housing costs. This is a tough environment for any new tax, but these are serious decisions with huge ramifications, and the school board and county commission were right to seek the will of the voters.

USF’s major gift. The University of South Florida broke the Monday blues in a big way this week with the announcement of a $14 million gift to its Muma College of Business. Thanks to the generosity of St. Petersburg philanthropists Kate Tiedemann and Ellen Cotton, USF hopes to develop its financial technology program into a national model and a “hub of excellence” for fintech education and entrepreneurship. Of that $14 million, $4 million has already been directed to endow two fintech professorships, leaving another $10 million to build the program in other ways. The money will benefit the Kate Tiedemann School of Business and Finance, which is based at USF’s St. Petersburg campus, but which also has students and faculty in Tampa and Sarasota. Mayor Ken Welch said the gift’s impact would extend throughout the region, as those involved with USF would develop new technologies in banking, insurance, the blockchain, cryptocurrency and more. Over the years, Tiedemann and Cotton have given USF around $30 million. Their support and USF’s ambition are a wonderful combination that will enrich Tampa Bay for generations to come.

Welcome new campus. Good to see St. Petersburg College bringing its successful collegiate high school program to its downtown campus. The program allows students to graduate with a high school diploma and an associate’s degree. SPC’s other two collegiate high school programs are at the main campus on Fifth Avenue N and 66th Street N and in Tarpon Springs. The new program, at the SPC campus near Williams Park, opens to its first wave of students in the fall and will focus on science, technology, engineering and math. Enrollment should reach about 320 students by the third year, the school projects. This type of focused program isn’t what every high school student needs, but it’s great that it’s available for those who thrive in such an environment. It’s a welcome addition to downtown St. Petersburg.

Children in poverty. More children struggle with poverty than official government data reflects, and the disparity is especially acute in Florida and punishing to minorities. Those are the findings of a recently published United Way study, which experts detailed this week during a virtual panel discussion. While the federal poverty level in the US is often used to measure financial hardship in America, the United Way has worked with researchers for years to better gauge the scope of financial insecurity. Using census data, incomes and ZIP codes, the United Way can identify households that don’t earn enough to afford necessities such as reliable transportation, child care, food, and housing. The report published this month shows the impact on children, including the effects on education, hunger and mental health. Florida had the third-highest rate in the nation of children living in households struggling to meet basic needs, the study found. While 17 percent of children in Florida lived below the federal poverty level in 2019, “more than half of children in Florida (56 percent) lived in households experiencing financial hardship,” according to the report. That accounts for about 2.4 million children. And children of color were disproportionately affected, with 73 percent of Black children and 66 percent of Hispanic children living in hardship, compared to 42 percent of white children. This is a chronic problem the state must address, even though it runs counter to the narrative by politicians that Florida’s economy is thriving.

Help food banks. Speaking of poverty, struggling households were in dire straits before rising inflation caused prices to spike. Even financially comfortable Americans are facing sticker shock at the grocery store, as the basics — eggs, bread, dairy, cereal — seem costlier by the day. Now imagine having to stretch the food budget even more. That’s the reality for a growing number of Floridians. So here’s a timely reminder: If you can, help an area food bank. Feeding Tampa Bay, Tampa Bay Harvest and Metropolitan Ministries are just a few of the local providers who could use the generosity.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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