TALLAHASSEE — Florida motorists enjoy getting their shiny new driver licenses on the spot, but the state is studying a possible change to a new system that's stirring warnings of a possible "disaster" with drivers waiting up to two weeks for their cards.
The state's top highway safety official says no decision has been made and won't be without a statewide consensus.
Florida prints five million licenses each year and most are issued by county tax collectors, elected officials with local clout whose re-election depends on good over-the-counter service.
Drivers pay $54.25 to get licenses issued or renewed immediately at county offices, and tax collectors keep $6.25 for every license sold.
Under a new system known as central issuance that's gathering momentum deep in the state bureaucracy, drivers could wait up to two weeks to get a license by mail — or pay more to get it sooner.
"I'm not convinced," said Brevard County Tax Collector Lisa Cullen, president of a statewide tax collectors' group. "I want to know how we're going to communicate this to the citizens of Florida. We need to tell them exactly what it's going to be, or we're going to have an absolute disaster."
Pasco Tax Collector Mike Fasano is trying to kill the plan. The former state legislator said it looks like another deal to benefit a vendor with a team of lobbyists in Tallahassee.
"Why would anybody want to wait two weeks for a driver's license?" Fasano said. "And when they get lost in the mail, and they will, we'll get blamed."
Fasano fired off an angry letter to Terry Rhodes, executive director of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, demanding that she abandon the idea.
Rhodes did not respond to the letter. But in an interview with the Times/Herald, she said no change will be made without the support of tax collectors.
"I'm not doing this without them. I can't," Rhodes said. "I am not going to do this without the support, hand-in-hand, of the tax collectors, but we would be remiss if we did not look at the different technologies that are out there."
A top Rhodes deputy, Carl Ford, briefed tax collectors in Orlando in July. The minutes of that meeting made it sound like a done deal.
"The department is proposing a central issuance model based on our research," the minutes state. "Implementation would be after the 2016 elections, as requested by the tax collectors, beginning in July 2017, and take about three months."
The minutes say that across the country, vendors are investing in central issuance systems, giving Florida the chance to get "the best and most secure credential."
As proposed, a driver would get a temporary slip of paper with no photo as a temporary license until the real one arrives. They could get it faster "by paying an additional fee," the minutes state.
Rhodes said she has briefed aides to Gov. Rick Scott and the three Cabinet members on the concept, but it has never been discussed publicly.
Amid concerns by tax collectors, her deputy, Ford, will meet with them at a statewide conference in Orlando Tuesday.
Cullen, the Brevard tax collector, wants to know how a change would affect people whose licenses get lost in the mail or who need photo IDs immediately to board planes and cruise ships.
"Stuff gets lost in the mail all the time," Cullen said.
The state driver license vendor is MorphoTrust USA, which provides the equipment that prints licenses and state-issued photo IDs. The Massachusetts-based company has contracts for central and over-the-counter systems in other states.
"We will deliver the solution our state customers ask us for," company spokeswoman Jeri Owen said.
Just five years ago, Florida embraced the current system in which licenses are provided on demand by tax collectors. A 2011 state report touted the system as safe and responsive, with efficient "one-stop shopping" for drivers and annual savings of $18 million.
Pinellas Tax Collector Diane Nelson favors a statewide delivery system, saying that the units that print licenses break down and a central system would make it easier to add security features that make it harder to create fake licenses.
"All modern technology and vendor resources are moving to the centralized print solution," Nelson said. "We're constantly having printer issues."
Hillsborough Tax Collector Doug Belden sees arguments on both sides and hasn't taken a stand. He criticized Fasano for "grandstanding that was totally unprofessional."
At one of Belden's Tampa offices, Daniel Moran, 24, of Carrollwood, waited more than an hour to get a replacement license. As the line snaked behind him, Moran said the idea of waiting for a license to arrive in the mail makes no sense.
"It's bad enough that we have to wait for one or two or three hours," Moran said.
Renewing a license in Florida can be aggravating for some drivers. The state requires much more paperwork under the federal "Real ID" law to combat identity theft and stop illegal immigrants from getting state-issued ID cards.
The state now issues millions of licenses by mail every year, mostly to people who renew online. They account for more than a fifth of all transactions.
The state also issues licenses in Miami-Dade, Broward and Volusia counties, which don't have elected tax collectors.
Tensions between the state highway safety agency and counties are nothing new.
A state plan to centralize the distribution of license plates, also through a private vendor, was killed by tax collectors three years ago.
Their target was then-highway safety chief Julie Jones, now head of the Florida prison system, who faced charges (untrue, she insisted) that she was trying to help a vendor.
Jones said she would offer a new license tag proposal, but it quietly disappeared, and Jones concluded that tax collectors are more interested in their own re-elections than innovations that would protect the public.
"It's all about getting re-elected," Jones said. "That's my jaded view of tax collectors."