Auto registration fee reduction breezes through Senate

A measure to cut the cost of re-registering vehicles by an average of $25 continued its speedy progress through the Legislature on Tuesday, with the Florida Senate unanimously approving it.

The cuts would cost the state $309 million in lost revenue next year and almost $400 million in subsequent years, but they are universally popular in an election year. The measure would roll back fee hikes that the Legislature approved in 2009, when economic times were dire and state finances were squeezed.

The measure does not, however, touch the far larger hike imposed at that time for new vehicle registrations.

If the Florida House approves the cuts later this week, the lower rates would take effect on Labor Day — two months before Election Day. The legislation has yet to receive a single nay vote in either chamber.

One politician hoping for electoral dividends is Gov. Rick Scott, who has made the rollback the foundation of his proposed $500 million package of tax and fee cuts. Not only does the reduction play to his populist message, it also sets him in contrast with his assumed Nov. 4 opponent, Charlie Crist.

Crist was governor when he and lawmakers approved $2.2 billion in higher taxes and fees, which included the annual auto-registration fee. That move came immediately after the economy collapsed, and the higher fees were needed to keep the budget afloat. Crist has said he now favors the reduction, and wonders why it wasn’t approved sooner.

With a projected $1.2 billion budget surplus, lawmakers could no longer deny Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, the Senate’s appropriation chair, who has been the cut’s most persistent advocate.

He filed a bill proposing it last year, but the bill died. His effort this year found support quickly.

While pitched as a boost for middle class Floridians, the cuts are more of a boon to certain businesses, like rental-car companies. The savings will range from $14.55 for the driver of an antique motorcycle to $25.05 for a typical automobile or truck. It might not be much for an individual, but the savings multiply for businesses with fleets of vehicles.

“The reductions in this bill actually go to families that get up every day, that take their kids to school, that drive a truck to work,” Negron said. “I’ve met a lot of small-business owners who have large fleets of vehicles, so the cumulative effect will be significant.”

Some Democrats grumbled that the savings would not be meaningful enough for individual Floridians to make the big cut worthwhile, but no senator spoke out against it Tuesday, and all 40 voted for it.

“We did the responsible thing of raising these fees so we could keep the lights on,” said Florida Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale. “Now that the economy has turned around, we’re doing the responsible thing again by giving the money back to the people.”

Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, asked whether the cuts included registration fees for new vehicles. Those fees were increased in 2009, too, from about $200 to $425 per vehicle.

But Negron’s cuts reduce only registration-renewal fees, not those for new registrations.

Doing so would have had a more “enormous fiscal impact than what we’ve budgeted for,” Negron told reporters after the vote.

“I’d like to see us address that,” Negron said, “but we took on the annual re-registration fees this session.”