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Senate seeks to cut auto tag fees -- at insurers' expense

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted Thursday to roll back some of the controversial increases in car and truck registration fees in 2009. But this potential win for motorists would come at the expense of the powerful insurance industry, one of the Capitol's most influential lobbies.

By a 19-0 vote, the committee approved a bill (SB 7132) by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, the chamber's lead budget-writer, to repeal a 1987 law that gives a 15 percent tax credit on the salaries
insurance companies pay to their full-time employees (excluding agents).

The estimated $220 million in new revenue would scale back some of the tag fee increases imposed in 2009 -- and signed into law by Gov. Charlie  Crist -- to balance the state budget. The House has not yet advanced a similar bill, but the tag-free rollback is an obvious priority of the Senate Republican leadership.

A parade of insurance industry lobbyists pleaded with lawmakers to leave the tax benefit intact, including venerable lobbyist Paul Sanford and Mike Hightower of Florida Blue, who is a major Republican fund-raiser. After listening to the testimony, even pro-business Republican senators
scolded the lobbyists and said a 26-year-old tax break needs to be reviewed.

"I love my friends in the insurance industry. But this is a conversation we need to have," said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine. "I hope my friends in the indurance industry will come back
with some ideas for us. Let's not just say no."

Negron first floated the proposal last week, and it caught the insurance industry
flatfooted, as several lobbyists acknowledged in their testimony Thursday. They missed a golden opportunity to rattle off a list of claims centers located in specific senators' districts, which might have tempered some senators' enthusiasm.

-- Steve Bousquet