TALLAHASSEE - In a move that could help in a tough re-election fight, Florida Gov. Rick Scott wants to roll back the fees that motorists pay to register their cars.
During a Thursday appearance in Tampa, Scott will wheel out a proposal to cut auto registration fees by $401 million next year. The governor's office estimates the cut -- which would kick in on Sept. 1, 2014 -- would result in a decrease of more than $25 for most motorists.
The Republican-controlled Florida Legislature increased auto fees in 2009 as part of an overall package of tax and fee hikes to help balance the state budget. Then-Gov. Charlie Crist -- who was a Republican at the time-- signed the fee hike into law. Crist is now running against Scott as a Democrat.
Scott had already said he wants to cut $500 million in taxes and fees next year. But this is the first time he has spelled out which taxes and fees he would target to cut.
In a white paper describing the proposal, the Scott administration contends that a projected budget surplus for next year should be used to undo the auto registration fee hike.
Florida economists last week concluded that the state's main tax collections would grow by 3.8 percent over the current fiscal year and another 4.9 percent by the middle of 2015, bringing the total to $27.5 billion. This means that Scott and state legislators next spring could have a budget surplus in excess of $1 billion even after paying for enrollment growth for schools and programs such as Medicaid.
When Scott first announced his plan to cut taxes and fees he held a series of public meetings with business owners and residents to discuss potential areas for cuts. That created a push by groups and business interest to propose cuts in everything from business taxes on electricity to sales taxes on commercial leases.
The governor has sought tax cuts every year he has been in office, but his initial efforts encountered stiff resistance from his fellow Republicans in the Legislature. Shortly after he was inaugurated in 2011, Scott sought tax and fee cuts of $4 billion over a two-year period.
Some Democrats criticized Scott's push for tax and fee cuts as a gimmick. They have said that Scott and the Legislature should use the extra money to increase funding for schools and universities.
In a written response to Scott's proposal on auto registration fees, Crist said, "It's about time! When these fees were passed by Rick Scott's colleagues and signed into law they were never meant to be permanent. I'm surprised it's taken this long for Governor Scott to realize that it's time to roll these fees back - better late than never."
So far GOP legislative leaders have come out in favor of cutting taxes next year, but they have been cautious about endorsing any set amount.
A legislative proposal to cut the auto registration fee is already moving in the Florida Senate, but the cut is not quite as large as the governor is recommending. The bill (SB 156) would cut the average auto registration fees by $12 a year and would cost the state an estimated $233 million. Auto registration fees can vary widely depending on the type of vehicle.
But Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart and sponsor of the legislation, said he welcomes the governor's support to cut the fees. Negron pushed a similar bill earlier this year but it died in the Florida House because it relied on ending existing tax breaks to cover the costs.
"The size and the scope of the rollback will be determined during the session," said Negron, who is also the Senate budget chief. "But the reduction will be substantial. Our constituents will feel it."