Bill allowing corporate logos on license plates advances in Florida Legislature

03/19/10 Seán Kinane
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Today, a Florida Senate panel approved two bills that would reduce annual license plate fees by $6 and give drivers the choice to save even more if they purchase a tag with a corporate logo.

The bill is sponsored by Republican Senator Mike Fasano.

Last year, because there was a deficit, the Legislature had to deal with that, and unfortunately, increased fees on the renewal of license tags. In fact, those increases were significant. What I, and Governor Crist, and President Atwater, the Senate president, wanted to do was try and reduce those fees. And two bills today would do exactly that. One bill would, immediately after signing into law by the governor—hopefully by June the first—starting in September of this year, every person would see a reduction on their renewal for their auto tags.

There’s also a bill that we passed today that gives the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles authority to create a program to see if any company, corporation would like to offer to have their logo on a person’s plate—if that person chooses to have that logo. There’ll be no mandate. But my understanding is that anyone that would decide to participate in the program, maybe have a Disney logo, a Nike logo, if the corporation were to participate, would see a significant reduction in their annual renewal for their license tag on their car—significant to the point where they probably see about a 40 or 50 percent reduction.

In an editorial today, the Tampa Tribune called it a “clunker of a revenue idea,” and said there are better ways for the state to raise funds.

Q: So how would you respond to critics like, the Tampa Tribune editorialized today that using state license plates for corporate advertising isn’t in the best interests of the state or motorists because lawmakers have much better ways to raise revenue, such as reviewing sales tax exemptions, and reaping sales tax on Internet and other purchases? What’s your response to that?

Well, Sean, we have looked at that. And I do support going after uncollected sales taxes that are being, things are being purchased by, for, on the Internet. We have looked at those. I wanted to step outside the box and see if we could come up with a way not only to save taxpayer money, but also give a reduction to those who, every auto owner and truck owner in the state of Florida. And we already advertise, Sean; people who drive on the turnpikes today see the signs as you go off the exits, that are supplied by the Department of Transportation. Businesses are paying for those signs, paying to be able to advertise on those off-ramp signs. When you go to a, you get on a bus, regardless of what part of the state you’re in, there’s advertisement on that bus—yet the bus is owned by a public entity like the city or the county. When you go to a ball field at a high school or a middle school, or a soccer field, or a football field, there’s advertisements out there as well. I wanted to give people the opportunity to a see a reduction in their annual renewal –and a significant reduction it would be.

Brad Ashwell, with the Florida Public Interest Research Group, opposes the law.

Well, it’s problematic and troubling in a number of ways. I think Senator Fasana's intent behind the bill is not in question; I think he wants to lower the fees for the public, and the bill would have that effect for some motor vehicle owners. It would lower the cost of license plates in varying degrees. But that probably wouldn’t be necessary in the first place if the Legislature hadn’t raised so many fees on the public last year, which we viewed as problematic in that they were unwilling to look at lots of other ways in which they could have raised revenues—without raising taxes, mind you. They chose not to look at closing a corporate shell game known as combined reporting, where in-state corporations file these in-state or out of state, you know, what gives them the best tax rate.

And there are a number of exemptions, there are a number of exemptions and subsidies where the state is losing millions of dollars in revenues that they’re not even considering. In fact, they had six weeks of hearings in the Florida House last session to look at whether we could close some of these exemptions, like sports subsidies to professional teams, the World Golf Hall of Fame, charter fishing boats. The point is, there’s millions of dollars that the state is losing, and they’re not even looking at these exemptions and subsidies, and considering whether they could be saving money. Instead, they raised lots of fees on the public. And now, they’re looking at ways they can give the public a little relief; that’s the justification behind this bill.

So, in general, we think it’s a bad idea. You know, I mean, the premise to why they’re pursuing it is questionable to begin with. But in general, you know, it feels like we’re often inching—and sometimes leaping—towards a government of, by, and for corporations. You know, we’re advertised to from the cradle to the grave, and I think we just have to look at ourselves in the mirror and say, where do we draw the line in the public sphere?

To highlight some more practical problems with the bill, as I said before: The state may enter into these agreements with any for-profit business, any business entity, any advertising firm, so long as they can provide five thousand dollars up front, an ability to pay 250 dollars per license to a thousand vehicle owners. So that raises some interesting questions on whether the state should be, A, should be an advertising tool for private companies—I mean, people would still be able to choose whether they want a corporate license plate or maybe a different license plate. But then the other problem is, the state is actually giving the public a financial incentive to advertise for McDonald’s or some corporation. This might not be something that PIRG would advocate, but it also will probably extend a lot of culturally conservative groups. It would allow, I mean, any business—that would include strip clubs, adult-novelties stores, head shops. I guess there’s a question on how that reflects on Florida as people drive their cars around the state, or the country.

And then last, I would point out that this bill is likely to have a fiscal impact which could make it unattractive to legislators; it might be, really, the death knell on the ability to move this through the Legislature.

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