Republican lawmakers in Tallahassee are playing an irresponsible game of semantics. To avoid being seen as raising taxes to cope with the state's $3 billion shortfall, they are planning to hike fees for even essential public services. But a dollar is a dollar whether raised by taxing dry cleaning, which lawmakers won't do, or by hiking drivers' license fees, which they're considering. Lawmakers should be ashamed. They're playing word games and in some cases embracing regressive taxation rather than tackling desperately needed tax reform that might solve some of the state's tax inequities and long-term funding needs.
Case in point: The House is considering raising the cost of an initial driver's license by $3 and every renewal by $2, as well as raising other driving and vehicle-related fees. No matter how lawmakers want to spin it, this is a tax, not a user fee. The money raised from drivers isn't going into a special trust fund to pay for something relevant, like roads. Virtually all the additional funds would go to the state's general spending fund to finance things like prisons, public schools and social services. That makes it a tax.
State legislators also plan to raise general revenues by charging $15.50 for a license to fish off a pier or beach. Many local residents use these public waterfronts to catch fish to supplement their food budgets. Requiring a license would essentially be a tax on food for people who can least afford it.
And the Senate is suggesting making it even harder for people to access the courts for basic legal matters such as guardianship of an incompetent relative or a divorce. An example: A divorce filing that today costs $295 would go up to $1,000 when marital assets exceed $50,000. The fees would double to $2,000 for marital assets of $250,000 or more.
There is a better way. Just to highlight a few within the Legislature's current purview:
• Approve the Senate's plan to raise cigarette taxes to help cover Medicaid costs.
• Start the process to collect sales tax on Internet sales.
• Close sales tax exemptions, such as the exemption on sports skybox rentals and fishing boat charters.
• Require online travel companies that book hotel rooms in Florida to pay the full tourist tax to the state that they already collect from their customers.
• Close corporate tax loopholes, such as the one that big national companies like Home Depot use when they shift income to subsidiaries in low-tax states as payment for leasing a logo or other intellectual property.
Tax reform isn't easy. But nothing about this economy is. Lawmakers need to back away from this approach and tackle real reform.