Sunday, December 17, 2017
Politics

Florida auto licenses, tags, issued through private companies could come with new fees

TALLAHASSEE — Drivers in Florida who renew their licenses and tags through a private company could soon face additional fees to do so.

Some county tax collectors are blasting the idea, including the fact that the fees have no limit. But the sponsor of the proposal called it voluntary because Florida drivers don't have to use the private companies. They can keep using their tax collectors' offices.

The provision, which was defeated a year ago, was added to House Bill 7109, a priority of the Legislature that includes a cut in the tax on commercial rents and the popular back-to-school sales tax holiday.

"It's laughable," said Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano, a former Republican lawmaker. "You have no idea what they're going to charge."

Fasano protested what he called an attack on working Floridians to his friend, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, who voted in favor of it.

"Disagree on this," Fasano said Corcoran texted him.

The amendment was filed by Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford. It allows any county to enter into a contract with a private tag agent to operate a branch office. The county would have to approve the new fee.

"At the discretion of the tax collector, the contract may include a convenience fee if the tax collector does not reduce such services at any other tax collector branch office," the amendment says.

Brodeur said the idea is to help motorists who may want to renew tags at nights, or on weekends, when most government-run tax collectors are closed.

"That convenience fee would just go to the overhead, the hiring of the workers and the rest of the cost associated with having those extended hours," Brodeur said.

Brodeur emphasized that the program is optional. He told fellow lawmakers that the fee would be negotiated and subject to market conditions.

The full House passed the bill on a 117-0 vote Wednesday.

It awaits a final vote by the Senate, which must pass an identical version before sending it to Gov. Rick Scott.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, opposes the fee and said Fasano warned him about it.

"I don't want that kind of stuff in this budget, but I don't have final authority on everything," Latvala said.

Palm Beach County Tax Collector Anne Gannon, a former Democratic legislator, said it's wrong for the Legislature to let private vendors charge a fee that tax collectors can't also charge.

"It's a tax increase," Gannon said.

She said her offices often have two-hour waiting times, and she would like to offer a new "convenience line" where motorists can voluntarily pay more money for faster service.

"If they give me the same kind of authority, I'm fine with it," Gannon said.

Gannon also was surprised that Republicans would put a fee increase on a bill dominated by tax cuts.

"You tell me where that makes sense," she said.

Another opponent is Brevard Tax Collector Lisa Cullen.

Hillsborough Tax Collector Doug Belden said he was neutral, but that it's wrong for the Legislature to not specify the amount of the fees.

"I'm not for it or against it," Belden said. "But I would not support something where they could charge whatever they want to."

A statewide tax collectors' group is neutral on the idea.

Every session, for-profit vendors that renew car registrations and drivers' licenses seek a stronger foothold in the nation's third-largest state, a lucrative and growing market.

Florida drivers pay tax collectors a fee of $6.25 to renew their registration tags and a $2.50 fee for the issuance or renewal of a driver's license. Those fees have not been increased in years, and Fasano, whose agency is $3 million in the hole, says they don't cover the costs of operations.

The new fees for private companies would be in addition to those charges.

Tax collectors make most of their revenue from collecting a 2 percent fee from all property taxes they collect from homeowners and businesses.

What worries tax collectors is the possible proliferation of private tag vendors siphoning away their business — and their revenue. Tax collectors get no state or county revenue for issuing auto tags and licenses and rely on the fees they collect to pay for those services.

The House sponsor of the tax cut package, Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, whose county of Manatee already has a private tag vendor, said motorists can still renew their tags online or at a tax collector's office without facing the possibility of a "convenience fee."

"If you want the convenience of a service like this, you're welcome to go do it," Boyd said. "There's no requirement. The tax collector still has to approve these facilities. There's no hidden fees because there's no requirement to use them."

Fasano said motorists may not make a distinction between a county-run tag agency and a more expensive private tag agency. He said he and other tax collectors may have to lobby Scott.

"I can't believe the governor and his staff would let this go through," Fasano said.

Tax collectors in Orange and Seminole counties each pay former Republican Rep. Chris Dorworth $6,500 a month to lobby the Florida Legislature on their behalf. Dorworth is also registered to lobby for the private company First Manatee Tag Agency.

Dorworth, who works for the Ballard Partners lobbying firm, served in the House with Brodeur.

Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] and follow @stevebousquet.

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