Gov. Rick Scott signs tag fee rollback into law, takes aim at Charlie Crist

Published April 3, 2014

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott signed a cut in auto tag fees Wednesday and singled out former Gov. Charlie Crist to blame for the increases, giving a bill-signing ceremony the feel of a partisan campaign rally.

The typical Florida motorist will save about $25 a year per vehicle registration when the lower fees take effect Sept. 1.

Scott, a Republican, will make rolling back the 2009 fees the centerpiece of a re-election pitch that he cares more about families than Crist, the likely Democratic nominee for governor who signed them into law during a recession when he was a Republican governor.

"We're here because in 2009, Charlie Crist raised this tax," Scott said. "We are going to right the wrong of the 2009 tax increase that Charlie Crist enacted."

Capitol bill signings traditionally celebrate bipartisan teamwork. By repeatedly calling out Crist by name, Scott linked the event directly to his re-election prospects, and legislative leaders picked up the theme.

"You're having a fantastic session and we're only halfway through," said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, citing Scott's two other bill signings this week giving a tuition break to veterans and toughening penalties for violent sexual predators.

What Scott didn't say was that Weatherford, Senate President Don Gaetz and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera voted for the higher fees, as did virtually every other Republican legislator.

Lopez-Cantera was House majority whip, responsible for rounding up the 77 Republican votes to approve the higher fees. But he said Wednesday he was following Crist's lead.

"When you're getting a strong message from the governor's office and only given one option, it makes it more difficult," Lopez-Cantera said.

Media reports at the time noted that the Republican-controlled Legislature proposed bigger fee increases than Crist did. The auto tag fee increases accounted for more than half of a $2.2 billion package of tax and fee hikes that included a $1-per-pack increase in cigarette taxes and higher costs to visit state parks and to file lawsuits and foreclosure actions.

Influential legislators at the time, such as Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, Sen. JD Alexander and the late Sen. Jim King, were all widely quoted as defending the fees as necessary.

On Wednesday, Crist said he was "very proud" of his record as governor during the recession.

"We had to get through a tough time, and sometimes you have to make difficult decisions," Crist said in Tampa. "And we saved thousands of teachers' jobs, law enforcement officers' jobs, firefighters' jobs."

Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano, a former senator who was the listed sponsor of the bill that raised the fees, said: "They're all running away from something they embraced a few years ago."

Fasano, a Republican who was appointed tax collector by Scott last year, called Scott's criticism of Crist by name at a bill-signing event "an act of desperation" and "uncalled for."

Pinellas Tax Collector Diane Nelson, who attended the ceremony, said motorists will appreciate the cost savings.

"It has always been my responsibility to prepare the public for a tax increase — never a tax decrease," Nelson said. "It's a great day to be a Floridian."

The owners of at least 756,000 cars in Florida won't get a tax break this year, because they have already renewed their tags for two years. The number could well exceed 1 million cars by September, and state officials say there's no way to let those motorists share in the fee reduction.

"It became a dilemma for the department," said Julie Jones, executive director of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. "That's a million transactions. Logistically, we couldn't figure out how to get there."

County tax collectors have been telling customers not to renew their tags for two years, and Scott sent tax collectors a letter urging them to keep doing so.

Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.