TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Motorists will start to pay less when registering their vehicles in the fall, shortly before voters go to the polls to decide whether to re-elect Gov. Rick Scott, in a major victory for the unpopular chief executive.
The House, after releasing a wide range of tax-cutting proposals on Thursday, unanimously approved the largest part of Scott's request for $500 million in taxes and fees reductions -- the elimination of the vehicle registration fee increase put into place in 2009 by the Republican-dominated Legislature.
By reducing individual vehicle registration fees by $20 to $25, depending upon the size of the vehicle, the bill is expected to save motorists a total of $309 million during the upcoming 2014-15 budget year, with the new, lower rates going into effect Sept. 1.
The Senate approved the measure (SB 156) on Tuesday; the bill now goes to Gov. Rick Scott, who said he will sign it.
During the discussion of the bill on Thursday, House Democrats called the rollback they were now voting for a political gimmick that will allow Scott to campaign on cutting a tax that was enacted while potential Democratic opponent Charlie Crist was in the governor's mansion.
"We're doing this because one governor wants to use this issue against a former governor in the election," said Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs.
"This bill is not about politics over policy. Keeping taxpayer dollars in the pockets of our citizens is always good policy," replied Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, who carried the bill. "Politics will play itself out after session, as two men that we all know will battle it out to be our next governor."
Scott, who visited the House floor during Thursday's debate, took a political tone outside the House chamber following the vote.
"This is a tax increase that Charlie Crist passed in 2009," Scott declared. "The right thing happened tonight, to reduce these taxes and put more money back in Floridians' hands."
The overall savings is expected to grow to about $395 million a year, once it's in effect for the full 12 months.
Earlier in the day, the House Finance and Tax Subcommittee introduced a plan that would surpass the governor's call for $500 million in cuts through a package that includes four sales-tax free holidays in the coming year, including one for gym memberships.
"We want to make sure make sure we're not a barrier between you and your health," Workman, the committee chairman, said of the proposal to drop sales taxes for those paying for gym memberships during the first week in September.
The package, cobbled together from different bills and proposals that have been filed and moving in the House, could reduce state revenue by more than $150 million. It will return to the committee next week.
Workman's package includes: sales-tax free holidays for back-to-school items, hurricane preparation, energy- and water-efficient appliances, and physical fitness memberships; a three-year exemption on cement mixing drums; a lifting of sales taxes from the purchase of car seats and other child restraints; Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam's request to reduce the sales tax businesses pay for electricity and shift about $188 million to school construction and maintenance; and Scott's call to increase in the corporate income tax exemption from $50,000 to $75,000.
The package is vastly different from the Senate proposal that was announced Wednesday by Finance and Tax Committee Chairwoman Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange.
Hukill's package would limit the cuts to a three-day back-to-school sales tax-free period (SB 792) as well as a measure to scale back the communications services tax (SB 266) that is imposed on cable and phone services.
Workman said that, because of the differences, he's "concerned" about the upcoming budget conferences with the Senate, where the chambers will try to iron out a compromise.
"It's going to be an interesting conference. I'm going to fight for our bill because I think it was very organic and very natural and very diverse. I think it touches a lot of people in different and unique ways," Workman said. "You know, sometimes there is a curtain -- and you think is something going on -- but there is nothing going on there. I think it's going to be one hell of a conference."
Hukill, whose package reaches the $500 million mark when combined with the vehicle registration fee reduction, said she had yet to review the House package but called Workman's approach "interesting."
"We're going to have to negotiate and see what we come up with that we agree upon, what's going to help the most people," Hukill said. "There are lots of different ideas out there. We're only in the third week. There's a long way to go."
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