TAMPA — Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill Wednesday cutting vehicle registration fees up to $25 for the average motorist, a total of nearly $400 million annually, using the signing ceremony to challenge his likely Democratic opponent for re-election, former Gov. Charlie Crist.
Even while he stressed that the ceremony was not a political event, Scott reminded the crowd several times Crist was the governor who signed the state budget that included increasing the fees.
“In 2009, Charlie Crist raised this tax. We are going to right that wrong,” Scott said.
Scott has made reversing the vehicle fee increases one of his top priorities for this legislative session.
Democrats pointed out that the fee increase was passed by a GOP-dominated Legislature and pushed through by Republicans including former House Majority Leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera, whom Scott recently appointed lieutenant governor; state Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, then state Senate president; and current House Speaker Will Weatherford.
Most Democrats, meantime, voted against the increases Scott faulted, said state Democratic Party spokesman Josh Karp.
“Rick Scott exposed his political desperation today by blaming others for a fee that will have been in place for more than 90 percent of his term and was passed by his own lieutenant governor,” said a statement by Crist campaign spokesman Kevin Cate.
Crist, meantime, sought to answer Scott with news of his own Wednesday, holding a press conference at Tampa's Straz Center for the Performing Arts to announce an endorsement by the center's namesake, banker and philanthropist David Straz.
Straz said he's a Republican who backs people of both parties, but has become disillusioned with Scott after supporting him in 2010.
“I believe that it is the responsibility of each of us to give back to our communities,” Straz said. “Unfortunately, some outsiders come to Florida and just take.”
He said Scott “took from Floridians as a CEO,” an apparent reference to Scott's career as head of a hospital chain, which included an investigation and $1.7 billion fine for Medicare fraud.
“He took away high-speed transportation and jobs from the city of Tampa. He wanted to take away $4.8 billion from education and he took away access to affordable health care for 1.1 million Floridians.”
Those are Crist campaign points referring to Scott's decision to reject federal money for a high-speed Tampa-Orlando rail line and for expansion of the state's Medicaid program.
Asked in the news conference about the motor vehicle fee increases, Crist said he approved them because, “We had to get through a tough time. ... We saved thousands of teacher's jobs, law enforcement officer's firefighters' jobs. We maintained a decent economy that was struggling worse than it had since the Great Depression itself ... I'm very proud of that.”
“It was definitely the right thing to do,” he said. “That's why all the Republicans voted for it back then, or most of them.”
But Lopez-Cantera and other Republicans now say they voted for the bill because Crist presented it as the only option to solve a severe budget deficit resulting from the national recession.
“You are getting the strong message from the governor's office and only getting one option, it makes it difficult,” Lopez-Cantera said, referring to the 2009 session.
The legislation cutting the fees passed both chambers of the Legislature on unanimous votes this session, but Democrats tried to poke holes in Scott's top priority by casting it as too small to help the average motorist, while supporters stressed the overall $400 million impact.
“Florida should keep more money they earn; this legislation that was just passed is going to put $400 million back in Floridians' pockets,” Scott said.
The fee reductions will take effect Sept. 1, saving motorists $309 million the first year and $395 million the first full year.