See you later G8TR?
Price hike hurts sales of specialty plates, including UF's
Published: Saturday, January 30, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 29, 2010 at 9:32 p.m.
The Gator Nation might be everywhere, but its specialty license plate could begin disappearing from the state - along with the scholarship money it provides.
The University of Florida still has the top-selling specialty plate in the state and saw overall sales increase in 2009. But those distinctions obscure a drop in sales during the last three months of the year, coinciding with a steep increase in license fees.
Other specialty plates saw similar declines, causing consternation among groups such as the Gainesville-based Caribbean Conservation Corps. It distributes grants funded by the sea-turtle plate, which took the No. 2 spot in popularity even as its overall sales dropped from the previous year.
"If we can't generate enough money, then the whole marine turtle protection program in the state is at risk," said David Godfrey, executive director of the conservation corps.
Starting Sept 1., the fees for purchasing a plate for the first time rose about $125. Costs for renewals increased by as much as $25 depending on the vehicle's weight.
Plate proponents suggest the increase caused drivers to decide the extra charges for specialty plates, ranging from $15 to $25 annually, were too much to bear.
State Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Cross Creek, said lawmakers faced a budget shortfall and raised fees rather than increase taxes. He's among lawmakers who have questioned the specialty plate program, suggesting that the state limit the number of kinds of plates because they make identification difficult for law enforcement. Currently the state has 114 different kinds of specialty plates.
"It just becomes a real quandary in terms of identification," he said.
Florida created the first specialty plates in 1986, with the first one commemorating the Challenger explosion and others for each of the nine universities then in the state university system. The 114 different kinds of plates generated more than $37 million in fee revenue in the 2009 fiscal year, according to a Florida Senate report.
The turtle plate and nearly every other specialty plate had declining new sales in 2009, causing overall new specialty plate sales to fall by about 97,000. While renewals increased overall - and for some individual plates including the UF and sea-turtle plates - much of the increase happened in the weeks before the increase took effect.
Started in 1997, the sea-turtle plate funds the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's turtle-protection program as well as grants to private groups. Those groups conduct research, conservation and education projects, along with efforts such as the rescue of cold-stunned turtles earlier this month. The plate costs $25 annually.
Godfrey said the plate typically generates around $300,000 to $400,000 annually for grants, but the figure could drop this year by as much as $100,000.
"Already we can't fund all of the projects and activities that are going around the state of Florida to protect sea turtles," he said.
Revenues from UF's plate, which costs $25 annually, are split, with 60 percent going for National Merit scholarships and 40 percent supporting the fundraising operation at the UF Foundation. Starting in 2009, any revenue beyond $2 million has been given to Florida Opportunity scholarships for first-generation students.
The scholarships have been a priority of UF President Bernie Machen for increasing the university's economic and racial diversity. Machen has sought various ways to pay for the scholarships, including athletic revenue and donations from himself and head football coach Urban Meyer.
The plate revenue would have provided a consistent revenue source, as plate sales have been above $2 million since 2001. Marion Hoffmann, UF's associate vice president of government relations, said the plate has been consistently popular, but the fee increases could complicate those efforts.
"It's this type of economy - it's a challenge," she said.
Two bills have been introduced in the state Legislature this session - sponsored by Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West, and Rep. Brad Drake, R-Eucheeanna - that would roll back license plate fees. But the bills come in another tight economic year with an expected budget shortfall of around $3 billion.
Without a change, Godfrey said he is worried sales of the turtle plate will see an even bigger decline this year.
"Some people can't afford to continue honoring that commitment to the marine turtle program," he said.
Contact Nathan Crabbe at 338-3176 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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