TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate on Wednesday unanimously passed a bill that rolls back automobile fees, saving an individual driver $12 a year.
The Senate passed the bill (SB 1832) on a 39-0 vote.
The state will make up the lost money — between $220 million and $230 million — by eliminating a decades-old tax break to insurance companies. Those companies pay a state tax on insurance premiums but also get a rebate worth 15 percent of the salary paid to their workers.
"The tax credit has helped produce jobs over the years," said Sam Miller, executive director of the Florida Insurance Council, the state's largest insurance trade association. "It is not clear that repeal of the credit won't endanger job creation. The state should move cautiously and be sure."
Indeed, a united front of business and insurance lobbyists had opposed the measure, many of them suggesting that getting rid of a tax break to pay for the rollback could cost the state thousands of insurance-sector jobs.
Sen. Jeremy Ring, a Margate Democrat, who described lobbyists' rhetoric as "there'd be Armageddon if this passed," said "it's nice to finally call a bluff."
State lawmakers increased auto fees in 2009 to help close a multibillion-dollar budget gap, part of a $2.2 billion package of tax and fee increases.
It included a 35 percent increase in annual tag fees, which went up $5 to $11.40, depending on a car's weight. The initial vehicle registration fee went from $100 to $225. And the cost of an initial driver's license increased from $27 to $48 and a renewal got boosted from $20 to $48.
Earlier this year, Senate President Don Gaetz had asked his committee chairs to review the state's many tax incentives.
Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, voted 'yes' after failing to stop the bill with an amendment requiring a study of the tax rollback.
Sen. Thad Altman, a Viera Republican, said the increase had never been discussed in committee and came up only late in the 2009 legislative session in budget conference.
"This is giving back to the people of Florida their hard-earned dollars," he said.
Sen. Nancy Detert, a Venice Republican, called it "a Robin Hood bill," and Jeff Clemens, a Lake Worth Democrat, said the measure was "a direct break for working people."
But Miller said the incentive that's paying for the tax break has been in place for more than 25 years, and was reaffirmed and expanded in 2003.
"We have seen companies that have been able to expand or maintain jobs, resulting in the industry employing more than 180,000 Floridians in just the last four years," he said. The tax credit "is part of the broader consideration that companies take into account when deciding to place or maintain jobs in our state, and we think it is working."
There is no companion bill in the House, meaning that chamber will have to consider the Senate version for it to become law. A spokeswoman for Speaker Will Weatherford could not be immediately reached.