TALLAHASSEE (AP) _ Driver license, registration and other motor vehicle fees went up _ way up in some cases _ on Tuesday, and that’s got many Florida motorists asking “why?” and “why now?”
Many politicians and bureaucrats are blaming the economy or something _ or someone _ else including their political opponents, the federal stimulus plan and simply the fact many of the fees haven’t been raised in more than 20 years.
“Why couldn’t they wait until the recession is over?” asked registered nurse Carolina Gonzalez as she waited about an hour in Miami to renew the license plate on her Nissan Sentra. “I mean, there’s lots of people without jobs. This is the completely wrong time to do this to people.”
Gonzalez is among thousands of Floridians who have saved money by rushing to renew their tags and driver licenses before the new fees go into effect.
Initial driver licenses are going up from $27 to $48. Six-year renewals are more than doubling from $20 to $48. Motorists who renewed before Tuesday avoided the increase at least until their next renewal.
Besides a base rate determined by a vehicle’s weight, annual registration includes a variety of other fees for such purposes as emergency medical services, transportation for the disadvantaged, air pollution control, the reflective material on plates and stickers that show a tag’s expiration date.
Most are going up.
The Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles offers the example of a 2007 Acura four-door weighing 3,586 pounds. The old registration fees, including tax collector service charges that will remain unchanged, totaled $46.80. They’ll be increasing to $71.85 _ a difference of $25.05, or 54 percent.
Motorists who got their new registration before Tuesday were able to save twice as much by getting a two-year renewal.
Heather Lorndono, a stay-at-home mother of two, waited in Miami with Gonzalez to get the tag on her Ford Escape renewed early.
“My birthday is nowhere near, but I wanted to get this done now,” Lorndono said. “I think it would be the smartest thing.”
A surge of motorists trying to beat the deadline intermittently crashed the state’s online renewal service Monday, and officials extended hours at driver license offices until 6:30 p.m.
They also issued vouchers that will let motorists who showed up at jammed driver license and tag offices pay the old fees if they return by Sept. 10, said Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles spokesman David Westberry.
The rush began last week with 113,684 motorists getting or renewing tags on Friday _ an increase of 185 percent over a similar day a month earlier. For driver licenses, the comparable numbers were 40,160 and 85 percent.
Hector Rodriguez, a self-employed contractor, also getting the tag on his Toyota pickup renewed in Miami said he wasn’t surprised that fees were going up.
“I would like to say that it is unfair, but I can afford to pay the fees,” Rodriguez said. “But I can see how that can affect those who are counting their pennies, and I’m sure there’s a lot of people these days.”
Floridians feeling that pinch are getting plenty of sympathy from Democrats in the Republican-controlled House because, with one exception, they all voted against the fee increases.
“Republican legislators proved again this year that they are not looking out for the middle class and working families,” House Democratic Leader Franklin Sands of Weston said in a recent statement. “These fee hikes will negatively impact average Floridians.”
The Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles has some answers for Gonzalez and others who are questioning the fee increases. In the Frequently Asked Questions section of the agency’s Web site, it says the fees are going up because they were “established in law by the 2009 Florida Legislature as a part of the annual budget development process.”
Then it adds: “The fees are not established or controlled by the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, the county tax collector, or your local tag agent.”
That response didn’t sit well with House Majority Leader Adam Hasner, who has joined fellow Republicans in defending the increases.
“That’s pass-the-buck leadership,” Hasner said.
He also noted the department, overseen by Gov. Charlie Crist and the state Cabinet, failed to point out the Republican governor signed the fee bill into law.
“I’d rather not do it,” Crist said. “But I understand we have to have a balanced budget, too, and it’s better than raising taxes.”
Department spokeswoman Ann Nucatola denied the agency is saying “don’t blame us.”
“It’s very factual,” she said. “We do not have control over the fees.”
Fee-hike supporters say the charges haven’t kept up with inflation over the past two decades. The Legislature had little choice but to turn to fees, Hasner said. He said lawmakers already had cut spending by about $6 billion over the prior two years and faced a threatened loss of federal stimulus dollars if they again chopped education spending _ the biggest part of the annual budget.
“No one on the Republican side wanted to raise fees,” Hasner said. “We did it kicking and screaming.”
Hasner faulted the Democrats for failing to come up with a better idea. Democrats in both chambers, though, had proposed tax increases aimed at businesses and wealthier Floridians. Some even filed bills that would increase the sales tax or repeal certain sales tax exemptions. None got anywhere.
In the Senate, also controlled by the GOP, the fees passed by a unanimous vote including all Democrats. So, is the House’s Sands also taking a slap at fellow Democrats in the Senate? Not at all, insisted Mark Hollis, spokesman for House Democrats.
“It’s unfortunate not every member of the Legislature was able to vote against taxes on the middle class,” Hollis said. “These are in effect taxes.”
The new fees are expected to raise more than $800 million during the current budget year and about $1 billion next year. Most of that new money _ about $670 million the first year _ is going directly into the state’s general revenue fund that pays for operating schools, prisons, health care and other day-to-day state functions.
Most of the rest _ about $135 million in the first year _ is going into the state’s highway safety trust fund, which is losing a nearly equal amount of general revenue.
Supporters of the fee increase say it’s only fair to put the bulk of the new money into the general revenue fund, supported mostly by sales tax, because it’s been subsidizing highway safety for many years.
Nucatola said few people have complained to the department about the higher fees.
“Most folks understand that we are in a tough financial time, and I think are also very grateful that for in excess of two decades they haven’t seen fee increases,” she said.
Associated Press Writers Damian Grass in Miami and Brendan Farrington in Tampa contributed to this report.
On the Net:
Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles Fee Schedule: http://www.flhsmv.gov/DHSMVFees.htm