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Fees or taxes? In Florida's Legislature, it depends on the party

Democrats in the Legislature have argued for years that the state does not collect enough tax revenue to provide adequate services to people in Florida.

So, for years, Democrats have pushed various new taxes, such as applying the sales tax to Internet sales, reviving the intangibles tax on savings, eliminating the ability of businesses to shelter their Florida profits elsewhere, and closing sales tax exemptions.

To Republicans, these ideas are horrible because they would raise taxes. Instead, they'll raise fees and claim they didn't raise taxes.

But when House Republicans this week advanced $700 million in new fees on Florida motorists to patch up next year's budget, all five Democrats on a committee screamed bloody murder and voted no.

Among them was Rep. Janet Long of Seminole, who called the driver-related fees a joke because the House would spend the money on everything from schools to health care, not for transportation, which is where motorist-related fees are usually directed.

Democrats say Republicans chose the wrong way to raise revenue by jacking up fees on working people.

"They've got to have a car," Long said. "If they can't afford to pay these fees, how on earth are they going to go to work?"

As an alternative to fees, Long suggested her bill (HB 579), which hasn't had a hearing. It would close a loophole that allows online hotel booking agencies to pay tourism taxes on the wholesale price they pay for a hotel room, not the full price. (A big chunk of the new money would go to counties, not the state, however.)

"In other words, it's more taxes," Rep. Greg Evers, R-Baker, told Long.

Republicans defend the higher fees by saying many of them haven't gone up for two decades.

But if the fees remain, people are in for sticker shock the next time they go to a car-tag office. The cost of almost everything would go up, from a license to a copy of a car's title.

A first-time vehicle registration would double, from $100 to $200.

Rep. Richard Steinberg, D-North Miami Beach, called raising license and tag fees "some of the most regressive forms of taxation" because the fees are the same "if you drive a Bentley or a Yugo."

The fight over fees in the House reflects that chamber's hyper-partisanship. It's a very different scene in the Senate, where genuine bipartisan support exists for fees and for an across-the-board tax increase on tobacco products.

In the House, Rep. Ron Saunders of Key West, the senior member of the House Democratic caucus, said the House GOP leadership won't give Democrats' tax proposals a hearing, and that Democrats have had no say in what fees were chosen.

"We don't have to be for everything they offer up," Saunders said.

With House Democrats unified in their opposition to fee hikes and a couple of Republicans also threatening to bolt in a transportation-budget committee meeting, the majority had to recess for almost an hour. After some arm-twisting, the higher fees passed, 8-5.

For years, Democrats have demanded more revenue, and the panel's chairman, Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, couldn't fathom why Democrats would say no.

"They've been advocating a cigarette tax, a sales tax, and now they're calling these fees a tax and making it look like it's bad," Glorioso said.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Fees or taxes? In Florida's Legislature, it depends on the party 04/03/09 [Last modified: Friday, April 3, 2009 10:07pm]

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