As cars became more accessible in the early 20th century, policymakers realized the need to develop more public infrastructure. Automobile-related taxes and fees exemplify early policy decisions to offer public goods through regressive means — a theme throughout the history of Florida’s modern tax code.
Then-Governor Sidney J. Catts in 1917 signed into law Senate Bill 266, which made for the collection of annual renewal fees for driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations as well as replacement fees for lost or damaged licenses and enacted punishments for violating the law. While the policy sought to capitalize on the rise of tourism coming to the state, the flat fees also established barriers for Floridians with low to moderate income. Throughout Florida’s history, the flat fees associated with driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations, along with replacement and reinstatement fees following a suspension, have disproportionately burdened Floridians struggling to make ends meet, as well as Floridians of color, making it harder to find good employment and build wealth.
The rise of the automobile in the 1910s and ‘20s offered Florida policymakers both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge was to regulate vehicles on public highways and finance much-needed infrastructure. The opportunity was to raise revenue through automobile-related activities. The 1917 law included fees for individual drivers and chauffeurs. It also included penalties for failing to comply, including fines of up to $100 or imprisonment in the county jail for up to six months. The registration and license fees created more barriers for Floridians who could not readily afford a vehicle and who — due to generations of racism and unequal opportunities to build wealth — were more likely to be people of color.