Creating more distance between himself and Charlie Crist, Gov. Rick Scott called Thursday for an election-year roll-back of $401 million in motorist fees enacted when Crist led the state.
In announcing the fee-cut plan in Tampa, Scott cited the state’s improving economy after a devastating four years when the global recession overlapped with Crist’s term in the governor’s office. Crist served as a Republican then and is now running for the office as a Democrat.
Scott derided the fee boost as a tax increase on Floridians.
“I have one message today for every Florida family: We are going to undo the 54 percent tax increase you saw in 2009 to register your motor vehicles,” Scott said at the event in Tampa.
Scott’s proposal still must clear the Legislature next spring. But he drew widespread support from lawmakers, especially fellow Republicans, who in recent years have opposed efforts by Democrats to erase the increase.
An attempt earlier this year to eliminate about half the increase also died in the Republican-controlled House. That attempt, offered by Senate budget chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, failed largely because it would have wiped out a tax credit for the state’s powerful insurance industry. Scott didn’t take a position on Negron’s bill.
“The governor’s election-season turnaround on this matter is heartening,” said House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston of Fort Lauderdale.
“I hope that he also finds the courage to adequately fund education, support health coverage expansion and meet other priorities of working families and small businesses that have been neglected under Florida’s current Republican leadership,” Thurston added.
The motorist fees Scott is looking to cut include driver license, registration and tag surcharges, along with increases tacked onto duplicates and validation stickers. The average driver would save about $25, Scott said.
Scott has pledged to cut $500 million in taxes and fees next year. But the size of Thursday’s proposal suggests the governor could be looking to top that figure with the state budget looking likely to have more than a $1 billion surplus.
The motorist fees spiked in 2009 when during the recession, lawmakers looked to close budget gaps by approving a $2.2 billion package of tax and fee increases, including the last boost in the state’s cigarette tax. The two legislative chambers and the governor’s mansion were all controlled by Republicans then.
Scott points out that Florida lost more than 800,000 jobs as the economy cratered and Crist was governor. State debt grew by $5.2 billion during that period, too, and Scott says he has worked hard to reverse these numbers since his election in 2010.
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said he welcomed Scott’s fee-cutting plan. But he broke with Scott’s narrative of drawing a contrast with Crist.
”It was the right vote, it was a hard vote,” Gaetz told reporters in Tallahassee. “None of us liked it….But it was the least worst alternative at the time.”
Gaetz on Thursday didn’t mention Crist. But as someone who, like the former governor, was struggling to keep state government afloat amid a cascade of bad news, Gaetz wasn’t ready to condemn the decision to increase fees.
“It was certainly meant to be temporary,” Gaetz said of the motorist increases. “And the hope was that it could be rolled back at some point.
“But it was hard at that time to see around the corner as to when things would get better, because every month seemed to be getting worse and worse,” he said.
In a statement late Wednesday, Crist also said that the increase was never expected to stay permanently on the books. He chided Scott for being “better late than never,” in recommending the rollback.
Amid the political crosswinds, House and Senate Republicans praised the governor’s move.
“Gov. Scott has been laser-focused on reducing the cost of living for Florida families since his first day on the job,” said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. “Today’s announcement is just one more example of his leadership in this area.”