State Politics

Lawmakers turn to fees to balance state budget

Prepare to pay extra for everything from fishing to grave sites


Herald Tallahassee Bureau

TALLAHASSEE — Get ready to open your wallets, Floridians.

To balance the budget, state legislators are ready to raise the cost of nearly every type of service: $15.50 for a license to fish off a pier or beach, an extra $1.50 ‘‘reflectorization fee’’ on license plates and even a new $20 court clerk fee to record the purchase a grave site or ossuary.

The types and amounts of the increases vary between House and Senate, which respectively raise about $970 million and $630 million in new fees in their proposed budgets.

The exact fees will be decided in the coming weeks as the two chambers reconcile their budgets. This much is certain: Legislators will raise the cost of dealing with government while reducing some services to fill a $3 billion budget hole.

“It’s painful, it’s difficult and it’s not over,” said Sen. Stephen Wise, a Jacksonville Republican who chairs the Senate’s university and community college budget committee.

Wise’s committee, like its House counterpart, plans to increase higher-education tuition by 15 percent. That’s on top of federal stimulus dollars for higher education and trims to some programs.

The PreK-12 budget in the House is being indirectly bolstered by fee increases as well in order to increase per-student spending by about $30. Much of the money comes from new fees on drivers’ licenses, penalties and motor vehicle tags. Those proposed increases, totaling $837.9 million, will be voted on Thursday by the House’s tourism and economic development budget committee, which oversees motor vehicles.

The committee’s chairman, Rep. Rich Glorioso, said nearly all the new money will flow into the general revenue section of the budget, 80 percent of which is dedicated to education and health care.

“We don’t have a lot of choices,” said Glorioso, R-Plant City. “When you raise tag fees ... that money is going to education and medical. It’s going to take care of somebody who needs those types of services. Will I like it? Absolutely not. But I know I have to do it. It’s the right thing to do.”

One of the biggest potential revenue-generators, a $2 rental car “surcharge,” might not survive a committee vote today even though it would raise $100 million annually. Many House Republicans are opposed to the measure, calling it a clear case of a tax — which they’re trying to avoid.

The more moderate Senate is raising fewer fees but isn’t flinching at the idea of an actual tax, such as the $1 per pack increase proposed for cigarettes. But some Republicans are calling the smoker tax a cigarette “user fee.” Both chambers are likely to add a tax or fee to the cost of bottled water and they’re likely to require a new permit for people who fish from piers or beaches.

One fee might actually decrease: The amount landlords pay to evict tenants. The Senate proposes cutting it from $265 to $180.

In the Senate, the new fees on drivers will generate an estimated $396 million in new revenue next year, and will prevent the layoffs of more state troopers. About two-thirds of the new money pays for general-government services.

Even with the new money, the state highway safety agency will have to cut the jobs of 74 workers.

While Republicans blanch over the size of fee and tax increases proposed in both chambers, Democrats say the state needs to raise even more money.

“This isn’t enough,” said Sen. Nan Rich, a D-Weston. “We’re cutting senior meals. We’re cutting the Agency for Persons with Disabilities. We have no money for kids aging out of foster care, and every study shows they’ll end up homeless or in the criminal justice system.”

And anyone who winds up in court might have to pay more as well.

Both chambers plan to increase court-filing fees. The House proposal would increase court fees by about $54.2 million, while the Senate’s would add about $200 million.

The chairman of the Senate’s criminal justice budget committee, Tampa Republican Victor Crist, wants to require anyone who buys a burial plot to have its location recorded at a county clerk’s office for a $20 fee — something of a tax on death.

Crist said the proposed new burial mandate would protect a person who signs “a perpetual contract and then passes away.”