Florida slams on brakes, delays action on license plate makeover

Florida hit the brakes Tuesday and delayed a redesign of its license plates, sparing Gov. Rick Scott a clash with county tax collectors.

Scott’s highway safety chief, Julie Jones, wants the state to switch from a plate with raised letters to a flat tag, saying the current tag is hard to read by cameras at toll booths and red-light intersections. She came to the Cabinet meeting prepared to ask for $24 million next year to get the project moving.

Jones proposed more outsourcing by hiring a private vendor to distribute tags to motorists who make online and mail requests to tax collectors. But the idea set off a firestorm among the elected officials who pride themselves on the quality of service they give customers.

Tax collectors, led by Doug Belden in Hillsborough County and Diane Nelson in Pinellas, sent letters to Cabinet members and lobbied their aides, warning that a change in the tag delivery system would end up costing motorists more money.

With opposition simmering, Jones asked her bosses — Scott and the three elected Cabinet members — for a delay.

"I need to be more specific with them before we continue the dialogue," Jones said. "I did not anticipate the level of resistance that I got."

Belden noted that 18 months ago, a top aide to Jones, Clayton Boyd Walden, began trading emails with Julie Strand Burke, an official of 3M Corp., on a possible tag redesign and changes to distribution.

That sparked accusations of backstage maneuvering by the state to steer the redesign to 3M, which Jones said was untrue.

"There’s nothing nefarious here," Jones said, adding that a redesign of tags would be competitively bid in public as state law requires.

As Jones sought Scott’s approval for a new tag design, some tax collectors were lobbying Scott’s top aide for a delay. Among those who met with Scott chief of staff Adam Hollingsworth was Duval County Tax Collector Mike Corrigan, who said the current system works well, with tax collectors handling transactions on behalf of the state.

"There is no proof at this point that a different delivery model is going to be better for citizens," Corrigan said.

Jones said she’ll re-submit the tag redesign at a future Cabinet meeting, and Attorney General Pam Bondi said she made the right move.

"We’re not ready," Bondi said. "A lot more needs to be discussed. ... We need to be sure that it’s the right route for consumers."

Said Jones: "I had to hit the pause button. The drama had overtaken what good could come out of this."

Herald/Times staff writer Tia Mitchell contributed to this report.