TALLAHASSEE — As more people in Florida seek concealed weapons permits, Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson wants Gov. Charlie Crist to veto a $6-million raid on a fund that pays for the program.
Bronson's request presents a timely opportunity for Crist to score political points with gun owners just as he's embarking on a race for the U.S. Senate.
In a letter to Crist, Bronson cited "unprecedented growth" in applications for gun permits that has created a "tremendous backlog" of cases to be processed. All applicants are subject to criminal background checks.
To balance the $66.5 billion state budget that takes effect July 1, legislators swept nearly $600 million from dozens of accounts known as trust funds. Most funds are sustained with fees that pay for specific programs.
The Division of Licensing trust fund consists of fees paid by applicants for concealed weapons permits as well as security, investigative and recovery licenses. Bronson's office said the $6 million sweep would leave between $2 million and $3 million in the fund.
"By law, the department is required to issue licenses within 90 days of receipt of a complete application," Bronson wrote in his letter to Crist dated May 14. "If we do not meet this time frame, an applicant may, by law, request the license to be issued even without the results of the criminal background check being reviewed. We simply cannot process all of these applications in a timely manner because of this unprecedented surge in new applications."
For months, in a trend seen as tied to President Barack Obama's election, the state has been flooded with tens of thousands of applications for concealed-weapons permits. Some retail stores in Florida have reported running out of ammunition as well.
A legislative budget committee in February gave Bronson the okay to spend $3.9 million more to hire 61 temporary workers.
In April, the state received 15,534 concealed weapons permit applications, compared with 9,207 in April a year ago. In March, the state received 12,809 applications, compared with 7,996 for the same month a year earlier.
Bronson's letter follows a similar plea from lobbyist Marion Hammer of the Unified Sportsmen of Florida, an affiliate of the National Rifle Association. She called the trust-fund sweep a tax and an attack on Second Amendment rights.
"In a last minute sneak attack on gun owners, the Florida Legislature raided the concealed weapons and firearms licensing trust fund and created a tax on the exercise of the Second Amendment," Hammer wrote. "That is a de facto tax on gun owners."
Crist, a candidate for the U.S. Senate who is expected to emphasize his support for gun rights, had no immediate reaction to Bronson's request. He has until May 30 to act on the budget.
"The governor appreciates the commissioner's letter. We continue to review the budget," spokeswoman Erin Isaac said Monday.
Bronson told reporters Monday that the sweep of the money caught him by surprise.
"It was all done in the last couple of days of the session. We certainly didn't recommend it," Bronson said. "Because we've had such registrations of concealed weapons permits coming in, we may have to put in more equipment, more modernized equipment, more people to handle the issues."
Times/Herald staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.