Scott OKs tag fee rollback, calls out Crist at signing ceremony
A Capitol bill-signing had the air of a partisan rally Wednesday as Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill to roll back some auto tag fees to pre-2009 levels, while repeatedly reminding his audience that former Gov. Charlie Crist approved them.
Scott made it clear the lower tag fees will be a centerpiece of his re-election strategy against Crist, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor along with former Sen. Nan Rich of Weston (who, like most legislators in office at the time, voted for the higher fees).
"We're here because in 2009, Charlie Crist raised this tax. We are going to right the wrong of this 2009 tax increase that Charlie Crist enacted," Scott said.
Crist was a Republican governor at the time and is now Scott's leading Democratic opponent. Left unsaid by Scott was that every Republican legislator but one also supported the fee increases, including Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera. A former Miami-Dade legislator, he was a House majority whip at the time and responsible for locking down GOP majorities on key legislation.
Asked by reporters about his vote in favor of the fee increases, Lopez-Cantera said: "When you're getting a strong message from the governor's office, and only given one option, it makes it more difficult. If Gov. Scott had been there in 2009, we wouldn't be here today with this issue."
Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford, who celebrated the tag fee rollback with Scott Wednesday, also voted to impose the higher fees five years ago.
"It was presented as the only thing to do at the time," Gaetz recalled. "We were told by the governor's office that we would be closing the doors of schools and hospitals across the state if we didn't do what we were asked to do. Many of us gritted our teeth when we cast the votes that we did."
The tag fee increases were imposed along with a $1 a pack increase in cigarette taxes to get the state through a major budget shortfall.
The Tallahassee press noted at the time that legislative leaders actually proposed steeper fee increases than Crist did. An April 8, 2009 story in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune quoted several leading Republicans (Sen. JD Alexander, the late Sen. Jim King and Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff) as defending the fee increases as necessary.
"We've got a $6.5 billion hole with $3 billion in stimulus," Alexander, then-Senate budget chief, told the newspaper. "We've got to come up with the rest. We either cut programs more or we find ways to adjust revenues where they're fair and equitable as we can possibly make it."
At Wednesday's bill signing, Scott was surrounded by legislative leaders, county tax collectors and business lobbyists as he signed the bill (SB 156), which will reduce tag fees for motorists on Sept. 1, saving the typical driver $25 a year on each vehicle. He said he's sending a letter to all 67 county tax collectors, urging them to remind motorists that they should renew their registrations for one year, not two, so they can be eligible for the lower tag fees.