State Politics

Legislature moves to ban ‘crash tax’

TALLAHASSEE — A bill that would ban the collection of a so-called “crash tax” narrowly passed the House Military & Local Affairs Policy Committee on Wednesday, and is set to be discussed in a Senate committee next week.

The proposal by Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, and Rep. Nick Thompson, R-Fort Myers, would prohibit them from billing people who get into accidents.

The Bradenton City Council has considered levying the fees, but those deliberations are on hold pending what happens at the Legislature.

Thompson said the accident fees — or “cost recovery programs,” as some municipalities call them — are really a “hidden tax.”

“You may be in a city in the state and get rear-ended and you’re going to get a bill after that vehicle crash,” Thompson said. “I don’t fault them for trying to raise revenue. I just don’t think this is the right way to do it.”

But cities and counties say the fees allow them to recover some of the police or fire-rescue costs of responding to crashes, particularly those caused by non-residents who don’t already pay for the services through taxes.

And local officials say they’re simply trying to find creative ways to plug their budget holes — the same issue the Legislature has faced during its current budget crisis.

More than two dozen cities statewide have enlisted contractors to recover fire-rescue costs from auto insurance companies and drivers, including several in South Florida. Other governments in South Florida and Tampa Bay have considered creating similar “cost recovery” programs.

Auto insurance companies and other opponents have started to fight the fees. Lawmakers in Georgia, Indiana, Mississippi, Pennsylvania and Tennessee have already banned them.

Some state lawmakers say the fees are really an insurance regulation issue, so the decision to impose the fees should fall to the Legislature, not local governments.

Others say the fees should be eliminated regardless of who imposes them. “If municipalities are having trouble fulfilling their requirements for fire-rescue, they need to build that into next year’s budget,” said Rep. Ritch Workman, a Melbourne Republican. “People find out about this when they get into a car accident and that’s just wrong.”