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Specialty license plates run amok

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If an illustration of a cactus and sunset don’t suit a driver’s personality, Arizonans now have the option to bypass the standard license plate for one of the 49 specialty plates when they register their cars. The Legislature that this year opted to increase the number of specialty license plates by 32 percent.

The dozen new plates include the ironic Tea Party plate, which will fund small-government groups with government money; a plate for the embattled Phoenix Coyotes hockey team, which may well move away from Arizona; an organ donor plate; a plate for women military veterans; and one honoring the state’s centennial.

The dramatic increase in the number of plates came over the vehement objections of some lawmakers who denounced the recent surge in specialty plates as a threat to public safety and private groups using the government to pad their bottom lines.

“The state of Arizona, when it comes to licensing cars, that’s all they should be doing. You have the rest of your bumper to advocate for whatever causes you want with bumper stickers,” said Rep. Ted Vogt, R-Tucson, who said the system allows state government to be the “fundraiser-in-chief” for nonprofit organizations.

But while some license plates have been overwhelmingly popular — more than 22,000 vehicles have the Child Abuse Prevention plate — many are not. Some may not ever recoup the $32,000 design fee necessary for the plates to be issued, leaving groups that expected a windfall instead facing losses.

Drivers can purchase specialty plates for $25 when they register their vehicles. Of that, $8 goes back to the Department of Transportation as an administrative fee and $17 goes to the organization represented by the plate. That means 1,883 plates have to be sold before the initial investment pays off.

Arizona Future Farmers of America is about to receive their first round of revenue from their plate, which became available in October 2010. Though Tyler Grandil, Arizona FFA’s executive secretary, said the group expects it will be at least three years at the current rate that the plates are being sold — 633 as of April 30, according to information from the Motor Vehicle Division — he’s excited at the long-term potential for raising revenue.

He expects that people being able to purchase the plate will be a more effective fundraising tactic than just soliciting donations. People like to have something concrete to show for their donation and show their support.

“It’s a way for them to tie back to the organization,” he said. “Even if they aren’t involved in FFA, they might have a great affinity for agriculture, or they love horses.”

Even though the numbers are low now, Grandil explains that if each of the drivers who originally purchased a FFA license plate renews it every year, they will produce a steady stream of revenue. Meanwhile, if other drivers continue to purchase more plates, that stream will continue to compound.

“This is going to be a great generator of revenue,” he said.

But Kevin Biesty, a lobbyist for the Arizona Department of Transportation, said that many organizations get a rude shock when they see their revenue checks going down, rather than up, because drivers have not renewed their special plates.

“There’s no guarantee that it’s going to stay steady,” he said. “People change their minds, or they get a new car and think, ‘I don’t want to spend an extra $25 on top of that for a (specialty) license plate.’”

The Arizona Historical Society is a textbook example of that phenomenon. In 2006, the group decided to go with the less expensive option — which has not been available since 2009 — of having the image of a badge representing their group added to a standard plate rather than an entirely new design, which only required them to secure 200 supporters instead of raising $32,000.

But according to the Point-in-Time report from the Arizona Department of Transportation, as of April 30 there are currently only 177 active Historical Society plates.

Roy Goodman, membership services coordinator for the Arizona Historical Society, estimates that 250 of their plates have been issued, but many were never renewed.

Despite the slow return on the initial investment, some of the nonprofits with specialty plates say the drivers’ show of support and exposure is nearly as important as the fundraising factor.

Take the Arizona Free and Accepted Masons. The Masons have had a specialty plate since February, and have issued 247 plates so far, according to MVD records. Robertson said that’s “about on track” with what he expected, which was for the plate to bring that $32,000 back in within three or four years. Any money the Masons make off the plate after that will go to Masonic Charities of Arizona.

But the lag between investment and profit is worth the added exposure, Robertson said.

“The whole idea was to make Masonry more visible to Arizona,” he said.

Goodman feels the same way about the Historical Society’s plate. And the way he sees it, the small number of plates in circulation is actually an advantage.

“There aren’t a lot of them out there, so when people see it, they take notice and it becomes a conversation piece,” he said. “And it’s fun.”

Public safety risk?

Though specialty plates may seem to be an innocuous issue, each year the subject generates passionate debate on the floors of the House and Senate from legislators who argue they pose a public safety risk, or that the specialty plates are outside the role of the state government.

And unlike many issues lawmakers grapple with, there is bipartisan dislike of the specialty plates — but not enough to stop the creation of new ones. Earlier this year, House Minority Leader Chad Campbell and Assistant Minority Leader Steve Farley outspokenly denounced bills establishing new license plates on the House floor.

One concern they have raised is that the ever-growing list of specialty license plates could pose a public safety issue. Though law enforcement may be familiar with all the different specialty plates out there, not all civilians are.

“For the average person who may have witnessed an accident, it’s going to be difficult for them to recognize the plate, to read the plate, and remember what it said when they’re describing it to the police,” Campbell said.

Fighting against specialty plates has been a personal crusade of sorts for Rep. Nancy McLain, R-Bullhead City. Her annual opposition to legislation aiming to create new license plates is as predictable as the sunrise. Her reason is a simple one: The standard Arizona plate is good enough.

“We have a very attractive plate,” McLain said. “I just don’t see the point in all these specialty plates.”

While some Republicans futilely joined Democrats in opposing the new plates this year in the House, it was a different story in the Senate, where no Republicans voted against any of the license plate bills. Senate Minority Leader David Schapira voted against the two he was present for.

“I like the idea of an identifiable Arizona license plate,” he said. “If I had my way, we would encourage people to donate directly to the organization and do away with all of the special plates.”

Other legislators don’t see what the big deal is.

Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, said he’ll vote for just about any license plate as long as it isn’t illegal and he doesn’t have a moral objection to the subject or group it will benefit.

And with so many organizations with special plates already, he said it would be tough for the Legislature to put on the brakes now and try to stem the flow of new plates.

“That horse is already out of the barn,” he said. “At this point, you would end up getting yourself in a lawsuit to deny somebody a special license plate.”

Vogt agrees that it’s a slippery slope, which is why he’s in favor of saying, “No más,” sooner rather than later.

“Where does this end? Every group wants to have a special license plate,” he said.

After this year’s spike in the number of plates, a growing number of lawmakers say they want to stem the flow of new plates.

Rep. Vic Williams, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said that he’s so sick of spending time discussing specialty plates that he might refuse to hear any proposals creating new ones next session.

“When I was appointed as the Transportation chairman, I thought that our debate and our discussion would be over how we should fund our roads and highways. And I saw the discussion not really over that, but over specialty plates. I think that’s unfortunate — I think we have more important things we should be looking at,” the Tucson Republican said.

Others, like McLain and Campbell, say that they’re simply going to continue to vote against any other bills that create a new specialty license plate.

Campbell, who has a Northern Arizona University license plate, said he had no objection to the specialty plates when there were only a handful of them. But somewhere along the way, he said, legislators have made it more about themselves than the causes they claim to be supporting.

“Look at the Tea Party plate — the Tea Party activists don’t even want it,” he said. “I’m pretty sure at that point, you can safely say you’re not representing the interests of this group of constituents. You’ve lost touch with common sense and reality at this point.”

Established by SB1402:

Arizona Police Association special plate
Boy Scouts of America special plate
Tea Party/Gadsden flag special plate
Arizona Multiple Sclerosis Awareness special plate
Hunger Relief special plate
Childhood Cancer Research special plate
Litter Prevention and Cleanup special plate
Phoenix Coyotes special plate
Channel 8/KAET special plate
Thunderbird School of Global Management special plate

Established by HB2656:

Women Veterans special plate

Established by SB1262:

Arizona Centennial special license plate

Total number of active specialty plates as of April 30, 2011:

Veteran: 42,276 (includes motorcycle plates)
Child Abuse Prevention: 22,684
Military Support/Freedom: 21,553 (includes motorcycle plates)
Arizona Cardinals: 18,728
University of Arizona: 13,914
Pet Friendly/Spay & Neuter: 13,134
Alternative Fuel: 12,550
Arizona State University: 11,299
Arizona Highways: 11,007
Pink Ribbon/Cancer Awareness: 10,456
Golden Rule: 8,961
Arizona Diamondbacks: 8,368
Environmental: 7,387
Families of Fallen Police Officers: 6,595
Transplantation Awareness (Organ Donor): 4,840
Purple Heart: 4,432 (includes motorcycle plates)
Arizona Sportsmen for Wildlife Conservation/Wildlife Conservation: 3,950
Fire Fighter: 3,787
Choose Life: 2,708
Phoenix Suns: 2,698
Character Education: 2,211
Navajo Nation: 2,169
Northern Arizona University: 1,857
Amateur Radio: 1,124
Fraternal Order of Police: 715
Arizona Agriculture: 633
White Mountain Apache Tribe: 475
San Carlos Apache Tribe: 473
Former Prisoner of War: 255
Masonic Fraternity: 247
Gold Star Family: 191
Arizona Historical Society: 177
National Guard: 171
University of Phoenix: 160
Pearl Harbor Survivor: 88
Legion of Valor: 6
Congressional Medal of Honor: 3

— Source: Arizona Department of Transportation Point-in-Time report

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