Local News

Vehicle fee cut cruises through Senate Bill would throw 2009 tax hike in reverse

SEBRING - Faced with a $6 billion deficit, the 2009 Florida Legislature increased 106 motor vehicle registration fees. "Those fees had not been raised in 10, 15 or 20 years," said then-Rep. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring. However, Floridians were furious. Before the tax increase took effect, the late Tax Collector Charles Bryan resisted Tallahassee by encouraging Highlands County citizens to pay two years of fees at the old rate. Thousands responded, but Bryan estimated that the state would nevertheless collect an additional $5.5 million from Highlands County alone. Eric Zwayer, who replaced Bryan in 2010, said some fees zoomed up 100 percent or more: "People are surprised and shocked at how much it costs to put a vehicle on the road. Taxpayers are having a hard time paying."
Sensing voter anger, a few legislators have tried ever since to repeal the unpopular tax increase. The drive to remove about half of the unpopular 2009 hike on vehicle-registration fees got a quick green light in its first hearing Wednesday. The Senate Transportation Committee unanimously backed SB 156 by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, to reduce each vehicle registration an average $12. "This bill is very simple," Negron said. It doesn't carry the baggage that led to a similar measure's demise last year. Rather than eliminating a tax break that the politically influential insurance industry enjoyed by the since the 1980s, the revised proposal now takes the money from general revenue. "I am very supportive of any effort to reduce fees, especially registration fees as it is an annual expense to our residents," Zwayer said Thursday. However, it will eliminate revenues for the state: legislative staff projected $182 million during the next budget year, growing to $239 million the following year and $244 million a year later. The rollback ultimately may cost money to Zwayer's office, but he supported it anyway: "At this point, the fiscal impact to our office is unclear, but because of the potential benefit to the citizens we serve, our office will adjust accordingly." State Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Avon Park, isn't sure yet: "I support some relief... I urge caution, however, as a large portion of this coming fiscal year's possible budget surplus includes non-recurring items." Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, supported the cut in a release after the committee meeting: "I'm confident that 2014 will be the year we can finally make this tax relief a reality for every Floridian who drives a car. And I'm hopeful this legislation will be the foundation of a 2014 tax relief package that will benefit hard-working Floridians across our state." Grimsley, now a state senator on the appropriations committee, is supporting the 2013 measure as well: "We can provide a direct savings to Florida drivers at a time when costs are rising for nearly everyone. We have a projected surplus in general revenue and I can't think of a better way to spend those dollars than by turning them back to taxpayers." The Senate proposal still has stops in the Appropriations Committee, which Negron chairs, and the Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee. The House version, HB 61, has been assigned to the Finance and Tax Subcommittee, the Transportation and Highway Safety Subcommittee and the Appropriations Committee. The News Service of Florida contributed to this story gpinnell@highlandstoday.com 863-386-5828