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TALLAHASSEE — Boaters who take a safety precaution could get slight discounts on their annual vessel-registration fees, under bills crafted after the tragedy of two 14-year-olds going lost at sea this summer.
The bills (SB 746 and HB 427) would provide discounts of about 25 percent on annual registration fees if boaters have purchased and registered emergency locator devices.
Backers said the proposal is a better way "to accomplish good" than pushing to increase the minimum age for operating boats in Florida waters.
"My preference is to leave that to the discretion of the parents," said Sen. Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican who is sponsoring the Senate version of the bill.
Rep. MaryLynn Magar, a Tequesta Republican sponsoring the House version, agreed.
"Many of these kids that are in our waterways, they're better off out there fishing, having a good time, than they would getting in trouble somewhere else," Magar said. "It's a great lifestyle. They just need to be safe about it."
Negron and Magar, working with Blu Stephanos — whose son Austin was one of the two teens who went missing after going out of the Jupiter Inlet in July — introduced the legislation on Wednesday.
Under the proposal, the discount would be given to anyone who currently has or buys an emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) device.
"Your cell phone won't work out there," Stephanos said during a news conference with Negron and Magar in the Capitol. "The only thing that is going to work is one of these devices. And at that time, it's more about rescue, not so much searching. And for that, can you put a price on it, really?"
The devices cost between $200 and $1,500, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. To be activated, a device must be registered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Negron said the cost, in relation to most boats, is "modest."
"I think ultimately it will save Florida money because these rescue operations are extraordinarily expensive," Negron said.
Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen, both from northern Palm Beach County, vanished after exiting the inlet together in a 19-foot boat. The disappearance set off an eight-day search in the Atlantic.
"I want to protect anyone from … having to go through what I'm going through," said Blu Stephanos, who intends to use a foundation he set up in his son's name to promote the use of the beacons.
The legislation is expected to save boaters about $5 million by dropping the annual fee based upon the size of each boat.
Under the bill, the annual fee for boats between 12 and 16 feet would drop from $16.25 to $11; for boats between 16 and 26 feet, the fee would go from $28.75 to $20.40; and for boats between 26 feet and 40 feet, the fee would fall from $78.25 to $57.50.
Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, last month introduced a proposal (SB 644) that would increase the minimum age from 14 to 16 to operate personal watercraft in most Florida waters.
"Right now, it's just personal watercrafts," Ring said when he filed the bill. "We're looking deeper into boats as well, but that's a bigger lift. So, we're not saying it won't be a part of this bill, but we're just not quite there yet. We do feel very strongly in getting this started, and a great start is with the personal watercrafts."
Ring's proposal, which has yet to attract a House companion, has been referred to three Senate committees.
News Service of Florida Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.