Florida welcomes Puerto Rican drivers — if they have $48 for a license

As tens of thousands of newly arriving Puerto Ricans slowly rebuild their lives in Florida, one of their first steps is to apply for a driver’s license in the Sunshine State.

But an Orlando-area lawmaker says the state should be doing even more to help Hurricane Maria’s victims.

Rep. Bob Cortes, R-Altamonte Springs, wants Gov. Rick Scott to stop charging evacuees the $48 fee for a Florida license.

“They’re coming from Puerto Rico with no money in their pockets,” Cortes told the Herald/Times. “And we’ve already set a precedent here in Florida.”

What Cortes refers to is the governor’s decision to waive various other fees, such as the Department of Business and Professional Regulation’s charges for more than 50 types of professional licenses — fees that DBPR Secretary Jonathan Zachem has described as “burdensome” in a recent release from Scott’s office.

The state is working with county tax collectors to help evacuees work through red tape and apply for licenses, a critical first step to getting a job in the state. The Department of Education also waived teacher certification fees and higher out-of-state tuition for newly-arriving Puerto Rican college students.

Cortes, whose parents relocated from Puerto Rico to New York City when he was a child, says the license fee should be set aside for another reason.

If evacuees apply for a state ID card, that’s free under state law because new arrivals are considered homeless. A first-time license costs $48.

“Governor Scott is continuously working to find ways to help Puerto Rican families displaced by Hurricane Maria and coming to Florida,” Scott’s office said in a Monday statement. “Our office will continue to release updates on action the state is taking at the direction of Governor Scott to assist these families.”

Cortes told the Herald/Times later Tuesday that Scott’s office told him his request is under consideration. Cortes said he first asked highway safety director Terry Rhodes to approve the waiver, but that Rhodes told Cortes she didn’t have the authority to approve the request, so Cortes went to the governor’s office.

The Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles has dispatched four mobile units to the Orlando and Miami airports. The FLOW (Florida Licensing on Wheels) vehicles are all staffed with bilingual examiners and are open seven days a week until 7 p.m. Evacuees applying for licenses can also register as voters.

As evacuees arrive at one of three state-run disaster recovery centers in Orlando and Miami, the first thing they see is a large colorful sign that reads: “Governor Rick Scott welcomes you to Florida.”

On Sunday alone, the agency issued 83 licenses and 41 state IDs at the DRC located at Orlando International Airport, and 189 other evacuees had license-related questions.

Under Florida law, Puerto Ricans can legally drive in Florida with their original licenses. They can also apply for temporary 180-day licenses. But Cortes said a lot of Florida employers want to see a Florida driver’s license from job applicants, and a Florida license is legally required for evacuees who establish residency here.