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Friday, Jul 11, 2014
Politics

Senate panel votes to roll back motor vehicle fees

Published:

TALLAHASSEE — A unanimous Senate panel today cleared a proposal to roll back the fees for automobile registrations — a move that could save Florida drivers around $225 million a year.

But a united front of business and insurance lobbyists opposed the measure, subtly suggesting that getting rid of a tax break to pay for the rollback could cost the state thousands of jobs.

The Senate Appropriations committee approved the bill (SB 7132) that reduces the annual cost to register a vehicle by $12.

Bill sponsor Sen. Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican and the committee chair, said the state would make up the lost money — between $220 million and $230 million — by eliminating a tax break to insurance companies.

Insurance companies pay a state tax on premiums, but also get a rebate worth 15 percent of the salary paid to their workers.

The takeback provision had a parade of industry representatives railing against the bill, with some dropping hints that insurance companies will head to business-friendlier locales.

Mike Hightower, lobbyist for health insurer Florida Blue, couldn't say whether his company would leave the state. But he did say: “If you squeeze the balloon here, it will pop out somewhere else.”

Paul Sanford, a lobbyist for the Florida Insurance Council, was more direct.

“All of you are aware there are a lot of states that are offering incentives to all kinds of businesses,” he said. “If you look at insurance industry jobs, those are very moveable jobs … it doesn't matter where they work.”

Negron later played down that rhetoric. He pointed out the billions of dollars made by insurance companies doing business in Florida.

“I'm happy about that; that's a good thing,” Negron told reporters. “But this idea that if we decide to redeploy a tax incentive to our constituents then the apocalypse is going to occur, I don't think the facts support that.”

Indeed, many Republicans on the panel were skeptical that the tax break was still needed. Senate President Don Gaetz had asked committees to review the state's many tax incentives.

Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, suggested the industry was simply upset at their ox being potentially gored.

“If it's good enough for insurance companies, should we extend it out to banks, printing companies, Verizon?” he said. “Do you think anybody should get a 15 percent (break)?” Other lobbyists answered by saying the state should honor the deal they made with insurers.

Latvala and Sen. John Thrasher, the Rules chair and a St. Augustine Republican, also got no direct answers when they asked how many insurance companies had actually relocated their headquarters to the Sunshine State because of the tax break.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat, noted one group that was missing from the debate.

“I didn't hear from any consumers today if they'd be interested in this reduction of the (fee), but I believe they would,” she said.

The bill returns to Gaetz's office to determine which committee will hear it next, according to Katie Betta, Gaetz's spokeswoman.

State lawmakers had jacked up auto fees in 2009 to help close a multi-billion dollar budget gap, part of a $2.2 billion package of tax and fee increases.

It included a 35 percent increase in annual tag fees, which went up $5 to $11.40, depending on a car's weight. The initial vehicle registration fee went from $100 to $225. And the cost of an initial driver's license increased from $27 to $48 and a renewal got boosted from $20 to $48.

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