TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott will announce today in Tampa that he will ask lawmakers to cut auto registration fees by $401 million, saving the typical motorist $25 a year and bringing him possible political dividends in next year's face-off against Charlie Crist.
It's the only cut in the $75 billion state budget he has identified so far. He's proposing reducing taxes and fees by another $100 million but hasn't disclosed where he plans to make those reductions.
It's no coincidence that the 3:15 p.m. announcement at Hilton Tampa Airport Westshore happens to be in Hillsborough, a county that is crucial to next year's gubernatorial contest and adjacent to Crist's home county of Pinellas. Crist was governor in 2009 when, faced with a state budget starved for revenue and aiming to qualify for billions in federal stimulus money, he and lawmakers approved $2.2 billion in higher taxes and fees, including an increase in the auto fees.
But that was then. As the overall economy has recovered, today's state budget is awash in a $1 billion surplus. Crist didn't hesitate to provide context to Scott's planned announcement.
"It's about time!" Crist said in a statement. "When these fees were passed by Rick Scott's colleagues and signed into law, they were never meant to be permanent. I'm surprised it's taken this long for Gov. Scott to realize that it's time to roll these fees back — better late than never."
Crist noted that the higher auto tag fees had been in place under Rick Scott for about 36 months — more than twice as long as when he served as governor from 2007 to 2011.
Yet whether the average voter will notice such nuance is another question.
Senate budget chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said the auto registration fee is one that resonates.
"This is the No. 1 issue you hear about from voters," Negron said. "People feel it. It's an annual exercise every year in which people have to pay it, so that makes them very aware of the cost. And in 2009, it made a huge increase in one fell swoop. So it's an excellent way to provide broad-based relief."
In Scott's first year in office, he asked lawmakers to roll back the fee increase. They declined. Negron sponsored a bill to lower auto registration fees this year, but that died, too.
Negron has filed another attempt, SB 156, and it's already vying to become the most popular bill in next year's legislative session, which begins in March. In October, the bill passed the Senate's Transportation Committee with a 9-0 vote. It enjoys enthusiastic bipartisan support and has yet to draw any objections.
Negron's bill doesn't reduce the auto registration fees as much as Scott's proposal. Rather than reducing them by $401 million, Negron's bill would slash them by about $233 million. But he said he appreciates Scott's plan. After receiving an invitation from Scott on Wednesday, Negron said he will attend today's news conference.
Scott first announced his intention to push lawmakers to cut taxes and fees by half a billion in late August before conservative activists in Orlando. But he avoided specifying what cuts he was proposing, opting instead to go on a "listening tour" through the state's largest TV markets to help give him ideas.
With the obvious popularity of Negron's bill, it was hardly a shock that Scott chose to identify cutting the fees as a main priority.
"Obviously, we're very supportive of the governor's call to cut taxes," said House budget chairman Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland. "We're in a year where we can afford it, and we're excited to be on board with him cutting taxes."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.