Specialty License Plates Generate Revenue, Controversy


With Nancy Reagan looking on at a Los Angeles bill-signing ceremony in October 1999, California Gov. Gray Davis okayed an aluminum tribute for one-time California governor and former President Ronald Reagan. Starting this year, Californians who dish out $50 up front and an additional $40 each year they renew their license plate can have Reagans picture on the rear bumper of their car.

California Girl Scouts, Florida adoption activists, and descendents of Tennessee's Confederate veterans had no such luck in getting license plates honoring them approved, demonstrating that something as simple as a flat piece of metal can generate strong emotions in state politics and government.

The Reagan commemorative plate "will allow California motorists to honor, not only America's 40th President, but the uniquely Californian frontier spirit he embodied," Davis said, soothing some of the tensions raised by the plate's bumpy voyage through the state legislature last summer.

Specialty license plates allow motorists to advertise their support for a cause, their school spirit, their military service, or their membership in an organization. States tend to like them because they typically boost transportation revenues by increasing the amount of money that motorists pay for auto tags. And in many cases, they also raise funds for the issue or institution they advertise.

In California, proceeds the from plate bearing the familiar image of the president, beaming warmly from beneath a cowboy hat while on vacation at his Santa Barbara ranch, will go to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley.

Practical considerations

Somewhat surprisingly, most objections to the Reagan plate raised in committee hearings were not so much political as practical, at least according to the objectors.

State Sen. Betty Karnette, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, said specialty plates were too difficult for police to identify and read and that making more of them will only worsen the problem.

Her concerns were echoed in states like South Dakota and New York, which redesigned their plates with clarity in mind. Karnette is sponsoring bill that would impose tight design restrictions and ensure legibility.

But the legibility issue may be overstated. A spokesman for the nation's largest professional organization for law enforcement officers said that if some police officers have trouble recognizing or reading the plates, the difficulty is not widespread.

"I've never heard of it coming up as a problem," said James O. Pasco, Jr., who directs the legislative office of the 280,000 member Fraternal Order of Police in Washington, DC.

Pasco said several state FOP chapters have received specialty license plates of their own, but he did not know if any received funds through them.

"To my knowledge, the idea is to bring in funds for the state," he said

"You've seen a proliferation of (specialty plates) over the past couple of years because organizations have found that they can get their message out and that they can raise ... a good amount of money" if they market themselves successfully, explains Texas DOT spokesman Mike Viesca.

Plates Becoming Increasingly Popular

In recent years, license plates have become something of an art form as well as a symbol of state pride. Nebraska voters are currently casting ballots for one of three new standard plate designs, whittled down from about 800 early contenders. Each design includes the state's Internet address as a means of improving public awareness of state services, a precedent set by Pennsylvania's new standard issue plates last year.

And the number of specialty plates, which in many cases bear little resemblance to a state's standard tags, has skyrocketed since the first collegiate plates appeared in the mid-1980s. New Yorkers, for instance, may now choose from over 200 options.

"Many states seem to crank out a new specialty plate every week," says plate collector Michael Kustermann, whose "License Plates of the World" Web site is widely regarded as the most comprehensive collector's site on the Internet.

Fellow collector Roy G. Klotz, Jr., a physician who doubles as the archivist of the American License Plate Collectors Association based in Stratford, Conn., sees the same trend. "There are only a few states which refrain from this practice ... Even such prudent states like Delaware have abandoned all restraint," he says.

Klotz points to Hawaii, which issued its first specialty plates last month in support of Honolulu's Bishop Museum and Hawaii Arts and Culture

Despite their numbers, individual plates may still be quite lucrative for both states and the benefitting organization.

Take the Texas plates that feature the logo of Texas A&M University. Viesca says they have accumulated more than $1 million for student scholarships over the last ten years. Plates featuring the Texas Commission on the Arts and the "Don't Mess With Texas" anti-litter campaign also have done well, while the "Animal Friendly" plate, which directs money toward spaying and neutering programs, has lagged in sales and may be phased out. Unused funds from discontinued plate programs go to the state's general fund, Viesca says.

Virginia's 150 specialty plates include one for people who like to bowl a non-revenue sharing plate that supports the state's general transportation fund. Officials say the Old Dominion has taken pains to make plate-shopping easier and more attractive with its self-serve online plate-design studio.

"Drivers in Virginia like specialty plates," says Virginia DMV spokeswoman Pam Goheen. She says DMV figures show that more than one in five Virginia car owners splurges in support of a favorite cause. One top example, the Chesapeake Bay plate, began sending $15 from each $25 purchase and renewal to bay conservation efforts after the first 1,000 tags were sold. To date, it has generated $370,000 in conservation funds.

More Controversial, Too

The politics of approving a plate can be contentious and lawmakers are often leery of placing controversial slogans or symbols on state property. Plate struggles have been plentiful within the past year:

  • Colorado lawmakers rejected a Columbine commemorative license plate earlier this month after pro-choice lawmakers raised concerns that the slogan "Respect Life" would be interpreted as an attack on abortion. The plates' backers, who included the parents of two Columbine students, said that the allegedly pro-life slogan is also a favorite of American Indian and environmental groups. "Anybody who fears these two little words ... is not going to be part of the lessons learned from Columbine," said Dale Todd, whose son was severely injured during the attack last April.
  • A "Choose Life" plate, offered in support of Florida adoption programs, cleared legislative hurdles and won Gov. Jeb Bush's signature, only to be frozen by a court order driven by objections that the plate would imply official antipathy toward abortion. An overtly pro-life plate failed in Indiana last year.
  • While the Supreme Court deliberates the constitutionality of the Boy Scouts of America's policy on homosexual scout leaders, Karnette's design bill which would bar discriminatory groups from attaining special plates -- and a second bill approving such a plate for the Scouts are pending in the California legislature. Ironically, they both cleared the same committee in March. Other states, including Texas, already offer Boy Scout plates.
  • After GOP lawmakers in Arizona proposed their own Reagan plate to fund Alzheimer's research, Democrats responded with one for former U.S. Representative and 1976 Democratic presidential candidate Morris K. Udall that would support the study of Parkinson's disease.
  • The Virginia Sons of Confederate Veterans filed a lawsuit last year after they failed to secure approval of a plate bearing the image of a rebel battle flag. Their brethren in Tennessee managed to clear a similar plate with the state Senate, only to have it killed by a House committee.
  • The Sons' efforts fared better in Alabama, where the Legislative Oversight Committee for License Plates approved the sale of plates bearing the stars and bars beginning last June. But the panel recently rejected the white-church-and-steeple design submitted by Urban Ministry of Birmingham, an outreach program of the United Methodist Church. Panel members approved the organization's request for a special plate, but ruled that the original design would leave the state vulnerable to costly lawsuits.

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