The increase provided for in the state budget comes as a surprise to many legislators.
By TIM NICKENS
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 5, 2000
TALLAHASSEE -- In an era when nobody talks taxes, the Republican-controlled Legislature is quietly raising $14-million from motor vehicle owners.
The proposed state budget that lawmakers will approve today provides for a $1 increase in the cost to renew license tags for cars, trucks and other vehicles.
And many legislators, both Republicans and Democrats, don't realize it.
"No, no, no," said Sen. Jim Horne, R-Orange Park. "I don't know anything about it."
Tag renewals aren't going up by a dollar because of what the $50.9-billion budget says. They're going up starting July 1 because of what it doesn't say.
A 1992 law enabled the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to increase motor vehicle registration fees to modernize the way renewals are handled and reduce lines at tag offices. But the dollar increase couldn't go into effect until the state worked out the plan, hired a vendor and tested the system. It took several years, but that has now happened.
Computerized kiosks similar to automated teller machines will be positioned throughout the state where motorists can pay their fee and receive the small renewal stickers for their tags.
Last year, however, the first for Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, the Legislature added a few sentences in the budget to prohibit the state from raising the renewal fee to pay for the modernization effort.
But that ban is not in the budget lawmakers will vote on today, the final day of the legislative session.
Instead, the budget calls for the state to spend $7.4-million from the dollar increase to pay for the new kiosks and computer system. The rest will be used to offset the deficit in the account for emissions testing, said Fred Dickinson, executive director of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
Republican legislative leaders and Bush's spokesman said they can't be criticized for raising taxes.
"Not when it was passed before us," said House Appropriations Chairman Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie. "That happened in '92. That Legislature gave the authority. We just implemented it."
The Bush administration knows about the increase, Communications Director Justin Sayfie said, but he wasn't sure if the governor had endorsed it.
"Our view of it would be that the authority for the dollar fee was passed in '92 and that this year that authority was made whole," Sayfie said.
Some Democrats were less charitable.
"It unmasks the true face of the Republican Party," said Rep. John Cosgrove, D-Miami. "They'll do whatever they think is expedient."
Cosgrove said a better approach would have been to standardize the cost of tag renewals. The cost now varies according to the weight of a vehicle, from $12.50 to $32.50.
"Which weighs more, a '63 Impala a poor person drives or a 2000 BMW?" Cosgrove asked.
The new kiosks, which will be equipped with printers that will be identical to ones being sent to tax collectors' offices, now are open in several small North Florida counties. They will debut in Hillsborough and Pinellas in June, Dickinson said.
The new tag stickers will include numbers that are identical to the tag number to make it easier for law enforcement officials to check them, he said.
Vehicle owners will start paying the higher renewal fees in 2000-2001 as the kiosks come to their counties.
"Driving in this state is still the best bargain in America," Dickinson said.
For Republicans who may be accused of raising taxes after vowing to oppose any increases, there is a routine defense for raising the cost of tag renewals: It's not a tax.
"That's a fee," said House Speaker John Thrasher, R-Orange Park. "Isn't it a fee? That's a fee."