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Thursday, Apr 17, 2014
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Dockery: Legislature cast difficult vote to fill budget hole in 2009

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Recently Gov. Rick Scott announced his intention to cut the insidious car tag fee increases that occurred five years ago. During his announcement in his opponent’s backyard of the Tampa Bay area, he hinted that he was reducing the taxes that his predecessor raised.

This is a smart political move, no doubt orchestrated by political consultants who hoped no one would notice it was fellow Republicans who crafted and then passed the bill to increase fees.

To understand the dynamics of the “Great Fee Hike of 2009,” a brief primer on Florida’s budget numbers and process is in order.

In 2007, during Charlie Crist’s tenure as governor, the state budget reached a high of $72 billion. By 2009, revenues were estimated to be a much lower $66.5 billion because of the recession.

Legislators preparing the budget tried to maximize spending in certain areas to obtain federal stimulus funds. After making severe cuts to many programs, some vital, legislators were still struggling to fill a $2 billion budget hole.

A desperate Republican-led Legislature had little choice but to temporarily raise fees and taxes to fill the gap. They raised revenues $2.2 billion, including a $1-per-pack tax increase on cigarettes generating $935 million, and fee increases on certain court costs totaling $195 million.

The toughest vote was for increasing fees on drivers’ licenses and new car tags to generate $800 million. This was done in Senate Bill 1778, which passed 40-0, with all senators, Republican and Democratic, voting for the increase even though many did so with extreme reluctance.

In the Florida House the auto fee hike passed, 74-43, but it did so primarily along party lines, with one Republican joining 42 Democrats in dissent.

SB 1778 was sent to then-Gov. Crist along with the budget, known as the appropriations bill. It’s important to note that this was no ordinary bill; it was a conference committee report that was negotiated in the final days of the session. The bill to increase fees was needed to enhance revenues so that they matched the amount of money spent in SB 2600, the appropriations bill.

Why is this important? If the governor had vetoed SB 1778, known as a conforming bill, it would have thrown the budget out of balance. In this case, the budget would have authorized spending $800 million in revenues that would not have been collected. At that point, it would have made sense to veto the entire budget. However, that would be highly unusual, particularly when the governor and legislative leaders were from the same political party.

In 2011, when state revenues were almost $70 billion, the Florida Senate wanted to roll back the 2009 fee increases, but Gov. Scott was more interested in reducing corporate income taxes.

During the 2013 session, state Sen. Joe Negron, Appropriations Committee chair, introduced and passed in the Senate SB 7132 to take revenue from eliminating a tax credit benefiting insurance companies and use it to reduce a portion of the auto fee increases. The House refused to go along.

Scott didn’t weigh in.

In September, as legislators started preparing for the 2014 session, Scott expressed interest in reducing taxes by $500 million and began a listening tour to hear from the public how to do so. He also indicated that he had no list of what taxes and fees he had in mind to cut. It is estimated that there will be a surplus of at least $840 million above the $74.5 billion in the current budget.

During the October committee week, Sen. Negron introduced SB 156, again trying to reduce certain motor vehicle fees, but this time using the surplus in general revenue funds.

Then in December, Scott announced his plan to cut $401 million in car and truck registration fees. If passed, it could save the average motorist about $25 a year, a very popular idea with re-lection looming.

Senate President Don Gaetz welcomed the governor to Negron’s bandwagon.

With more than an $8 billion increase in the state budget from 2009 to the present, isn’t it well past time to undo the fee increases that were supposed to be temporary?

The timing and location of the governor’s announcement, along with his inaction over the past three years, make the governor’s motives appear more opportunistic than sincere. It’s an insult and a disservice to the Republican legislators who took the tough but responsible vote to balance the budget.

Wouldn’t it be more honorable to be honest with voters rather than to try to deceive them for political gain?

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland.

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