Refloating Florida's Boats

May 06, 2010 Wall Street Journal

What do you do about a tax that costs jobs and raises little money? Florida lawmakers have been pondering that question in relation to the 6% registration tax for owning a boat in the Sunshine State. If you buy a $1 million boat and register it in Florida, you currently pay $60,000 in sales taxes. If you buy the same boat and register it in another coastal state like North Carolina, you pay a maximum of $1,500, in South Carolina $500, and in Rhode Island $600. Even more common is to register the boat in a nearby foreign nation like the Cayman Islands, where you pay close to zero tax. So to refloat the boat business, the Florida House voted last Wednesday to cap the boat sales tax at $18,000. This is roughly the amount of legal costs to register a yacht in the Caymans. Opponents call the repeal a tax cut for the leisure class, and the state's official revenue estimators predict it will cost $1.4 million a year in lost revenue. This ignores some basic math: Collecting $18,000 per yacht beats getting nothing. According to Florida assemblyman Tom Grady, the sponsor of the bill, "You can walk down any dock in Fort Lauderdale, the yacht capital of the country, and you won't find a single boat over 50-feet long flying a U.S. flag." An estimated eight in 10 expensive boats in Florida are registered somewhere else, mostly abroad, and a boating industry study estimates this costs the state $120 million in lost revenue. This also costs jobs, because the $18 billion boat industry in Florida, which employs 200,000 workers, gets fewer sales, fewer repairs, fewer crews and other business. This tale is reminiscent of the 10% luxury tax on yachts costing more than $100,000 that Congress passed in 1990. That tax, also passed in the name of social justice, nearly ruined the boat-building industry in states like Florida and Maine, because the rich went to the Bahamas and elsewhere to buy their boats until Congress repealed the yacht tax in 1993. The Florida boat fiasco is one more reminder that soak-the-rich taxes often hurt middle-class workers more than the affluent. The bill now goes to the desk of protean Governor Charlie Crist, who has announced that he'll try to save his political career by running for the Senate as an independent. Let's hope he has the wit to sign it.