Gov. Rick Scott’s magic number this year was $2,500. That was the size of the pay raise he wanted to give every teacher.
The Legislature had another idea. It decided to spread the money around to benefit principals and other educators, so the amount of the raise shrank for many teachers.
Scott’s magic number next year is $25. That’s how much he wants to reduce the cost of an annual car registration for millions of Florida drivers.
Scott hopes a lot more people will be paying closer attention, because while the number is smaller, the stakes are bigger. It’s all about his inevitable election-year rival, Charlie Crist.
Crist has spent his career fashioning an image as the populist who cares about the average Joe, and he’s calling out Scott as a shill for corporations and moneyed special interests.
It was Crist, then a Republican governor, and a Republican Legislature who jacked up tag fees in 2009 to help patch a budget shortfall without raising taxes across the board.
A few years later, Scott will make sure voters remember who raised the tag fees and that during his tenure, the economy bounced back well enough that the state could afford to give people some of their money back.
“A reduction is going to be welcomed by all motorists, I can tell you that,” said Diane Nelson, the Pinellas County tax collector who distributes hundreds of thousands of car and truck tags a year.
Nelson described a“deer in the headlights” look on motorists’ faces when they see their bill for a tag, about $72 a year now and $47 if Scott’s plan is approved.
“When they see it, it’s always more than they anticipated,” Nelson said.
Even though most state legislators are Republicans who want Scott to get re-elected, they will have their own ideas about cutting fees in next spring’s session. Lawmakers don’t like being boxed in to a specific number.
“It’s a little early for that yet, until he (Scott) brings his budget out,” said Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. “It depends what the fiscal picture looks like as we get closer to the session.”
Scott’s tag fee reduction plan would eat up about $400 million of a projected $1 billion budget surplus.
The agencies under his command want more than twice that much in personnel and programs, such as hiring dozens of state troopers, much of it to make up for the cuts over the past few years.
It seems inevitable that tag fees will come down in 2014. The Senate was eager to do it last year, but the House wouldn’t take it up and Scott stayed out of the debate as he pushed the pay raise for teachers.
“This year, it looks like we’ve got two partners,” Gaetz said.
Steve Bousquet is Tallahassee bureau chief of the Tampa Bay Times.