Those confusing tags

Published: Thursday, January 15, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 14, 2004 at 10:52 p.m.
There's another flood of specialty license plates coming to a bumper in front of you soon. Florida is awash in them already - so much so that one legislator has filed a bill for the coming session that would abolish the specialty plates.
No new ones would be issued after midyear if the bill passes - an unlikely event, given the number of causes the tags support. Those expiring after that date would be replaced by a standard tag.
The state started issuing specialty plates in 1987, to help raise money to build a memorial to the astronauts who died when the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986. It was originally set to be sold for a limited time. But in 1991, it was expanded indefinitely.
Impressed with the sales of the Challenger plate, the Legislature authorized collegiate license plates in 1987 to help fund scholarship programs at the state's nine universities. That same year, the Paralyzed Veterans of America plate was authorized, along with the Florida Salutes the Veteran Plate and the Super Bowl plate.
The flood had begun. Today, the plates are everywhere - and there are nearly 100 different ones designed to raise money for almost every cause imaginable - from breast-cancer awareness to protecting the manatee. Some of the best sellers include University of Florida and Florida State tags.
"My instincts tell me things are getting crazy with the plates," Rep. Irving Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, told a reporter last year. The problem is that however popular some tags may be, the bottom half of the sellers account for less than 9 percent of all specialty plates sold.
A few have failed to keep sales high enough and have been discontinued, including the Girl Scouts, the Tampa Bay Storm and the Orlando Predators. They were dropped because motorists must buy or renew at least 8,000 specialty tags over a five-year span, or that tag is dropped.
And, yet, there have been just eight tags issued in the entire state for Lynn University in Boca Raton. How can that be?
It's because the Legislature was pressured into issuing another specialty tag for New College in Sarasota, a public liberal arts college. The Legislature waived the $60,000 application fee to the state and said that the college did not have to collect 15,000 signatures of motorists who would buy the plates as other organizations are required to do, says Robert Sanchez, a spokesman for the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
When that happened, the small private colleges and universities in the state started pressing for their own specialty tags. "Both were hard barriers to cross for a lot of our smaller colleges and probably not worth the effort," said John Van Gieson, spokesman for the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida, of which there are 27. "There was extreme interest when the opportunity was presented," he said.
So now there are 16 new tags for private colleges. While the tags are no doubt welcomed by the schools' supporters, the high number of different ones create a headache for the state's tax collectors, who must keep a variety on hand in case someone wants to purchase one.
Moreover, many law-enforcement officers say the different backgrounds and colors make it difficult for them to read, or to even verify quickly if the tag is a Florida plate.
Fred Dickinson, executive director of the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, told a reporter last year that he has been concerned about the tag explosion for several years. Adding additional tags further dilutes the fund-raising effectiveness of others.
"The proliferation of more tags in our state is cannibalizing itself," Dickinson said. "We need to do a better job of promotion. If we can show what the money is going for, that is a plus. When prices are going up, people can only afford so much."
Some legislators share Dickinson's concerns. One is Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, who deserves credit for criticizing and resisting the proliferation of tags. During last year's legislative session, she voted against each bill authorizing a new specialty tag. "There are a number of members who feel like I do, but it's very hard to vote no on a breast-cancer license tag or another really good cause," Dockery said.
She, too, argues that the process is cannibalizing itself: "I'm of the opinion that there is a certain segment of the population who will buy a specialty tag. So if you create more, you're just taking away someone who is already buying a specialty tag."
Eliminating the program entirely isn't the best solution. But it's clear that the Legislature needs to be a lot more selective about authorizing specialty tags, and more diligent about getting rid of tags that do not sell in appreciable numbers.
Whether the Legislature will do that is doubtful however. Bills have already been filed to authorize another half-dozen or so specialty plates.

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