TAMPA — Gov. Rick Scott's push for a $400 million rollback in car and truck tag fees is drawing support from motorists and lawmakers as it revives a vote that many Republican lawmakers would rather forget.
In Tampa on Thursday, Scott called on the Legislature to reduce the cost of most annual auto registrations by scaling back fees that were raised in 2009 to patch a huge budget deficit.
"We're going to give you back that 54 percent increase you saw in 2009," Scott said. "It was never government's money. It's your money."
The estimated annual savings for each motorist would be $25, Scott's office says. Florida issues about 15 million sets of vehicle registrations each year.
The total annual savings of $401 million is the centerpiece of Scott's election-year promise to reduce taxes and fees by $500 million as an improving economy produces more revenue for the state.
The biggest single cut in the Scott package is to lower the base fee for an annual registration from $44 to $32.50. Cuts to other tag-related fees make up the rest of the savings.
"That's two pizzas and cheese bread," said University of Tampa student Gabrielle Wolfe as she waited in line to register her vehicle. "We'll take it."
Scott declined to say whether he would have supported the increases in 2009 if he were governor. The higher fees were signed into law by his Republican predecessor and likely future Democratic rival, Charlie Crist, who broke a no-new-taxes pledge in approving the increases.
"We were trying to keep the lights on in the Capitol," recalled Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, one of many Republicans who voted for the higher fees. "It was a hard vote. None of us liked it. … It was the least worst alternative at the time."
Gaetz noted that last spring, senators, led by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, tried to scale back the fees by $220 million, but it died in the House, and Scott did not take a stand on it.
"We appreciate the governor embracing Sen. Negron's idea," Gaetz said Thursday.
Like Gaetz, other legislative leaders support the idea, but they are not ready to agree to Scott's number.
"It's too early for us to commit to specific details," said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, one of 21 GOP lawmakers who issued supportive statements through Scott's office.
The next legislative session begins March 4.
By calling for a cut in vehicle registration fees, Scott is focusing new attention on an unpopular vote by Republicans who hoped it would be a short-term fix, yet millions of motorists continue to pay the higher fees.
Republicans said that without the higher fees, deep cuts to health care and education would have been far worse.
"We were absolutely desperate," said former Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, now Pasco County's tax collector, whose name will forever be listed as sponsor of the fee increase because Fasano oversaw the budget of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
Every Republican lawmaker except one (Rep. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, now a senator) voted for the 2009 bill containing the increases, including then-Rep. Jennifer Carroll, who was Scott's lieutenant governor until she resigned last March.
So did all 13 Senate Democrats, but seven, including Nan Rich, now a candidate for governor, and Charlie Justice, now a Pinellas County commissioner, also voted against the 2009 state budget that contained the higher fees. The first vote remains so touchy that the Senate Democratic Office on Thursday re-issued Justice's 2009 press release in which he cited opposition to the fees as a reason he opposed the budget.
All 43 House Democrats voted against the 2009 fee-increase bill.
Democrats are now trying to undercut Scott's pro-consumer message by faulting him for waiting until the last year of his term to propose a fee rollback. Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, the House minority leader, said that "for too long (Scott has) ignored Republican legislative leaders' fiscal irresponsibility."
Scott is not urging cuts in other steep increases in driver license and vehicle registration fees that also passed in 2009. They included raising the cost of a driver's license from $27 to $48, a copy of a car title from $24 to $70 and a "new wheels on the road" fee from $100 to $225, paid by new residents who bring vehicles into Florida for the first time or who add to their fleet.
The "new wheels" fee, which 852,000 motorists paid last year, was among the reductions recommended to Scott by highway safety agency director Julie Jones. The governor's office said his goal was to lower fees for as many drivers as possible.
Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.