Gov. Rick Scott will make an election-year pledge Thursday to cut $401 million in auto-tag fees that could save a typical driver about $25 yearly and put some political heat on his 2014 challenger, former Gov. Charlie Crist.
Scott plans to make the announcement in Tampa -- Crist's stronghold -- but he isn't expected to detail an additional $100 million in other tax and fee relief he might want.
While the auto-tag fees were raised by Crist and the Republican-led Legislature in 2009, Crist noted in a statement Wednesday that Scott had allowed the fees to remain for the past three years.
"It’s about time! When these fees were passed by Rick Scott’s colleagues and signed into law they were never meant to be permanent," Crist said in a statement. "I’m surprised it’s taken this long for Governor Scott to realize that it’s time to roll these fees back – better late than never.”
The governor's fellow Republicans who control the Legislature say they want to see more details, but they like what they've heard so far -- especially because it gives them the chance to reduce the unpopular fee increase four years ago.
"I've had three campaigns since then and knocked on thousands of doors, and this is the tax increase people remember," said Senate budget chief Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican who last year passed a measure to scale back the fees.
"Government has a bad habit of raising fees in times of need but not revisting them when times improve," Negron said. "This puts a little extra money back in people's pockets."
In targeting auto-tag fees, Scott is highlighting the tax-and-fee increases passed in 2009 by the Florida Legislature and approved by then-Gov. Crist. Crist, who two years previously approved a mammoth property tax-cut package, broke a pledge on increasing taxes when he signed that budget.
Driving lawmakers' need for the 2009 tax increases: the shoddy condition of Florida's budget, running red with shortfalls in the depths of the recession. To fill the budget hole -- and qualify for billions in federal stimulus money -- Crist and his then-fellow Republicans raised $2.2 billion in taxes and fees, including the auto-tag fee about $1 billion of which came from a new cigarette tax to help fund Medicaid.
The stimulus money and tax increases helped prevent large cuts to schools and social-service programs. As the budget went into effect, in the summer of 2009, the rate of Florida's precipitous job losses stopped, but unemployment remained persistently high.
Dogged by the bad economy and his embrace of President Obama's stimulus program, Crist mounted an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate in 2010, when Marco Rubio chased him out of the GOP. Crist ran and lost as an independent and is now seeking his old job as a Democrat.
Now, Florida has climbed out of the recession and the state has a projected budget surplus of $1 billion -- making the election-year call to cut half of it a relatively easy left in the GOP-led Legislature during the regular lawmaking session this spring.
"Obviously, we're very supportive of the governor's call to cut taxes," said House budget chairman Seth McKeel. "We're in a year where we can afford it, and we're excited to be on board with him cutting taxes."