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Cuts in vehicle registration fees pass Senate, head for House

TALLAHASSEE — Cutting the cost of re-registering vehicles by an average of $25 continued its speedy progress through the Legislature as the Florida Senate unanimously approved the measure Tuesday.

Overall, the cuts will cost the state $309 million in lost revenue next year and nearly $400 million in subsequent years, but it's universally popular in an election year. The measure rolls back fee hikes that the Legislature approved in 2009 during more dire economic times. It does not, however, touch a far larger hike imposed at that time for new vehicle registrations.

If the Florida House approves the cuts later this week, the lower rates would begin Labor Day — two months before Election Day. The legislation has yet to receive a single nay vote in either chamber.

One politician hoping for electoral dividends is Gov. Rick Scott, who has made the rollback the foundation of his proposed $500 million package of tax and fee cuts. Not only does the reduction play to his populist message, it also stands him in contrast with his assumed Nov. 4 opponent, Charlie Crist.

Crist was governor when he and lawmakers approved $2.2 billion in higher taxes and fees, which included the annual auto registration fee. That move came immediately after the economy collapsed, and the higher fees were needed to keep the budget afloat. Crist has made it clear that he now favors the reduction and wonders why it wasn't approved sooner.

With the budget awash in a $1.2 billion surplus, lawmakers could no longer deny Sen. Joe Negron, the Senate's appropriation chair, who has been the most persistent advocate for the cut.

He filed a bill proposing it last year, but the bill died. His effort this year found support quickly.

While pitched as a boost for middle-class Floridians, the cuts are actually more of a boon to businesses like rental car companies that own fleets. The savings will range from $14.55 for the driver of an antique motorcycle to $25.05 for a typical automobile or truck. Drivers renew their registration in their birth month. State figures show that last year nearly 9 million drivers renewed their registration from January to August, compared with more than 4 million in the last four months of the year. So it will be 2015 before most people realize savings.

Some Democrats grumbled that the savings wouldn't be meaningful enough for individual Floridians to make the big budget cut worthwhile.

"I've met a lot of small business owners who have large fleets of vehicles so the cumulative effect will be significant," said Negron, R-Stuart.

No senator spoke against the bill on Tuesday and all 40 of them voted for it.

"We did the responsible thing of raising these fees so we could keep the lights on," said Florida Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale. "Now that the economy has turned around, we're doing the responsible thing again by giving the money back to the people."

But Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, asked if the cuts included registration fees for new vehicles. Those fees were increased in 2009, too, from about $200 to $425 per vehicle.

Negron's cuts only reduce registration renewals, not fees for new registrations.

Doing so would have had a more "enormous fiscal impact than what we've budgeted for," Negron told reporters.

"I'd like to see us address that," Negron said. "But we took on the annual re-registration fees this session."

Times/Herald staff writer Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or mvansickler@tampabay.com. Information from the Associated Press was used.

Cuts in vehicle registration fees pass Senate, head for House 03/18/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 18, 2014 10:22pm]
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