TALLAHASSEE — Bowing to public and political opposition, Florida scrapped plans Monday to join 35 other states that issue driver's licenses by mail rather than in person.
The idea died two weeks after the Times/Herald reported that the state highway safety agency was considering changing to a centralized issuance system that it said would make it easier to add anti-fraud features to cards to reduce identity theft.
But the proposal outraged elected county tax collectors, who make point-of-sale issuance of licenses a cornerstone of the customer service they use to build favor with voters. Under the new system, drivers would have had to wait up to two weeks to get new cards in the mail.
"We have determined that the central issuance model would not enhance customer service and could be perceived as an inconvenience," the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles said in a statement approved by tax collectors. "Going forward, the department and tax collectors will continue to work together to procure a new (driver's license and) ID card that keeps customer service and public safety at the forefront."
The department said the state and counties would work in tandem to produce a card with better security features.
"I'm pleased the department is backing away from changing a system that works extremely well," said Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano. "It was a bad idea and I'm happy it got squashed."
Florida drivers were already up in arms over the idea.
"Please keep fighting them on this idea," Edward Fullam of New Port Richey wrote on a customer card in a Pasco tax office.
As the third most populous state, one that attracts more than 250,000 new residents every year, Florida is a highly lucrative market for production of driver's licenses.
A centralized issuance system would have expanded the role of a private vendor in making the licenses. The contract has been held since 2002 by MorphoTrust USA, a Massachusetts company that received $9.7 million from the state last year.
Florida is one of its biggest customers, but the company said it had no preference as to which system the state uses.
Visiting tax collector offices is part of a rite of passage for millions of Florida teenagers when they get their licenses for the first time. At least one tax collector hands out toy cars as souvenirs.
Fasano was the first tax collector to publicly attack the idea of sending licenses by mail, and others quickly followed. Opposition swelled in a meeting last week with a top state driver's license official.
"They need that card in their hand," said Carol Jean Jordan, tax collector in Indian River County and a former chairwoman of the Republican Party of Florida. "We pride ourselves on one-stop shopping. It's very important that people have that card when they leave the office."
The highway safety department is led by executive director Terry Rhodes, a state government veteran who was unwilling to jeopardize her delicate working relationship with tax collectors, who also issue license tags to motorists.
Rhodes runs a Cabinet-level agency, which means she works for Scott and all three statewide elected Cabinet members.
Two Cabinet members, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam,, last week questioned the wisdom of considering any change without the support of tax collectors.
Atwater noted that the state Legislature decided five years ago — while he was Senate president — to put the issuance of most driver's licenses in the hands of tax collectors. (Two major exceptions are Miami-Dade and Broward counties, where the state issues licenses because they don't have elected tax collectors).
As Putnam presciently said last week, without tax collectors' support, "It is doomed to fail."
Contact Steve Bousquet at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.