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Steve Bousquet column: Gov. Rick Scott's tag fee rollback speeds toward passage

SCOTT KEELER | Times

What can you buy with $25?

Oh, about seven gallons of gas. Or a week's worth of lattes at Starbucks. Or two pizzas.

Or, perhaps, a second term as governor.

Let's face it, $25 doesn't go as far as it used to, but Gov. Rick Scott hopes it will help carry him to a second term in November.

Scott's top priority this legislative session is a partial rollback of car registration fees that spiked by about 35 percent five years ago to help the state survive a budget crisis. Now that times are better, Scott says, it's time to return that money to motorists.

The 2009 Legislature, dominated by Republicans then as now, passed those fee increases, along with a $1-a-pack increase in cigarette taxes and steep hikes in court filing fees. Then-Gov. Charlie Crist signed them into law.

On the campaign trail, Scott can be expected to take credit for putting money back into people's pockets that Crist took away. But look at who else also voted to raise tag fees: House Speaker Will Weatherford, Senate President Don Gaetz, CFO Jeff Atwater, then a senator, and dozens more GOP legislators still in office.

Nan Rich, a Democratic candidate for governor, voted for the increases as a senator, as did other Senate Democrats. Most House Democrats voted no.

The Senate and House are poised to give final passage to the fee rollbacks any day now, so Scott can sign them into law though they won't take effect until September.

If you're a typical motorist, you now pay about $72 a year for the yellow decal on your license plate. Under the rollback plan, you'll pay about $47 next year.

This may or may not be a big deal to you, but it is to Gov. Scott. His advisers were out in force Thursday as the Senate Appropriations Committee approved the rollback (SB 156).

Chief of staff Adam Hollingsworth was there. So was budget director Cynthia Kelly and legislative director Darrick McGhee, and tax adviser Christian Weiss looked on as a House subcommittee also approved the reduction.

The House Finance & Tax Subcommittee chairman, Rep. Ritch Workman, said he often hears complaints from people about the cost of auto tags.

"Very much top-of-mind awareness to the average consumer," Workman said.

Other lawmakers were incredulous.

"I have not heard from one individual constituent, and I thought it was wrong when you raised them in 2009," Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, told Workman.

Other Democrats fired partisan shots at the majority Republicans, accusing them of bending over backward to help Scott's re-election.

Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, said the lost tax revenue from the rollback ($309 million in the next partial fiscal year and $400 million the next year) is "extremely excessive," and it would be better to spend the money to put a police officer in every school in Florida.

"No one is going to convince me that this is the No. 1 issue that people are talking about," Moskowitz said. "It's a pointed, total political issue."

But in the end, they all voted to roll back the fees.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Steve Bousquet column: Gov. Rick Scott's tag fee rollback speeds toward passage 03/17/14 [Last modified: Monday, March 17, 2014 10:37pm]
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