TAMPA — Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday proposed cutting motor vehicle registration fees so a typical auto registration would cost about $47 rather than $72, a move that would account for some $400 million of the $500 million in tax cuts he has promised for the coming year.
“I have one message for all Florida families,” Scott said at a news conference in Tampa announcing the proposal. “We’re going to give you back the 54 percent increase you saw in 2009 when you registered your motor vehicle. ... It’s your money. I intend to work with the Florida Legislature to give you back the money that’s yours.”
The fees were sharply increased in 2009, along with driver’s license fees, other motor vehicle fees and tobacco taxes, to produce about $2.2 billion in new state revenue. The highly unpopular step was taken by a Legislature desperate to plug a budget hole but eager to avoid being accused of raising taxes.
The cuts might be possible because expected increases in tax collections mean the Legislature could have a $1 billion or greater budget surplus next year, even after expected increases in public school enrollment, Medicaid and other costs.
Scott’s proposal would leave the other increases in place, including the increase from $20 to $48 in the cost of renewing a driver’s license.
The measure immediately became a political football because former Gov. Charlie Crist, Scott’s likely Democratic opponent for re-election next year, was in office when the Legislature passed the increases. Crist, then a Republican, signed the state budget, including the increases, into law.
The national and state Republican parties both bashed Crist on Thursday, while Crist blasted Scott for waiting so long to roll the increases back.
“It’s about time,” Crist said in a news release. He said the fee hikes weren’t intended to be permanent, claimed they were passed “by Rick Scott’s colleagues,” meaning Republicans in the Legislature, and noted that they’ve been in effect longer under Scott than they were during Crist’s term as governor.
In his news conference, Scott didn’t respond to Crist’s statements and declined to say the Republican-led Legislature was wrong when it passed the fee hikes.
But the state GOP in a news release called Crist’s statement “delusional” and said he likely to increase taxes again if he becomes governor.
“Is Crist saying he’s glad Rick Scott is cleaning up his mess?” said the statement from spokeswoman Susan Hepworth.
The “mess,” however, was made by other Republicans besides Crist in the GOP-dominated Legislature at the time, including Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, then Senate president, and others who are now prominent legislative leaders. Nearly all Republicans in the Legislature voted for the measure; on Thursday, several said they weren’t happy about it but that the increase was unavoidable.
“We were dealing with a difficult budget -- we took a vote that was necessary at the time.” said state Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton. “There were some pretty big cuts looming to education and health care. I don’t think any of us assumed it would be permanent.”
House Speaker Will Weatherford called it “not the Legislature’s finest hour ... We had a $6 billion shortfall at that time. I’m not blaming anybody for it. The good news is we’re going to fix it.”
“I voted for it, unfortunately,” said state Sen. John Legg of New Port Richey. “That was a challenging vote. I think the governor’s correct, it is time to repeal it.
A few legislators in 2009, mostly Democrats, opposed the increases by voting against the full state budget after arguing unsuccessfully during the legislative session for closing tax loopholes instead of hiking the fees.
Former state Sen. Nan Rich, now a dark-horse challenger to Crist in the Democratic primary for governor, accused Crist of “revisionist history,” saying the legislators who passed the budget were his colleagues, not Scott’s: “He was a Republican governor.”
“There were other ways to balance the budget rather than draconian fee and tax increases on the backs of middle-class families,” Rich said.
Other no-voting Democrats included state Sen. Arthenia Joyner of Tampa and former state senator and now Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice, joined by Republican former state Sen. Ronda Storms of Valrico.
Scott’s proposal makes it almost certain some of the registration and license fees will be rolled back, but which ones, and how much, remain uncertain.
Some legislators including Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, have already been trying, but Negron’s bill would make smaller cuts, totalling about $220 million, and would include other fees as well as the registration fee.
“We’ll be able to work out a number that fits the reality of the budget,” said Negron, appearing alongside Scott in Tampa on Thursday. “The size and scope will have to be determined.”
Scott’s proposal would take effect in September if passed. He hasn’t yet said where the remainder of his $500 million in tax cuts would come from.