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Have Florida's specialty license plates hit a crossroad?

3:46 PM, Apr 25, 2013   |    comments
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Florida drivers face a dizzying array of specialty license plates to choose from - 120 designs to be exact with at least three more under review in the Legislature.

VOTE: Which Florida plates do you love? Hate? Vote here

Choices range from FGCU to the University of Florida, from Fish Florida to Trees Are Cool, from NASCAR to End Breast Cancer and more. Those getting a specialty plate must pay a special fee on top of the standard registration fees all motorists must pay.

The growing number of plates - Florida issued its first specialty plate in 1986 - has prompted the future senate president to wonder if priorities are being misplaced.

Sen. Andy Gardiner, an Orlando Republican who is expected to become Senate president in 2014, expressed displeasure recently with the proliferation of specialty tags as the Senate Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development Subcommittee backed a new tag for Freemasonry and supported increasing the annual fee for the "Florida Wildflower" plate.

"We have a situation where some don't want to expand Medicaid, we're dealing with a $74 billion budget, yet it amazes me that we can get wrapped around the axle over $70,000 in a license plate," said Gardiner, who is chairman of the subcommittee.

The Legislature has made several efforts in recent years to prevent new specialty plates.

"But they keep coming," Gardiner said before voting against increasing the annual fee on the wildflower plate to $25 from $10.

The plates are popular with Florida drivers with more than 1.3 million registered in the state in 2012, historically about 10 percent of the actual number of plates registered, state officials said.

Richard and Donna Petersen of Punta Rassa have had the Protect Wild Dolphins tag - a top five plate - for the past 10 years.

"There are so many choices," Mrs. Petersen said. "We like nature, and we like the sea. The design and the color of this plate was part of the beauty, as well as the topic."

"And the money goes to a good cause," Mr. Petersen added.

Darrell Abels of North Fort Myers spent 24 years in the Navy, which accounts for his white and blue U.S. Navy plate.

"I just wanted Navy," he said. "I didn't mind the extra fee." He added that in Kansas, where he moved from recently, a similar program provided the plate for free.
Most of the other 50 states offer some sort of specialty license plate with Virginia offering more than 200 designs, Ohio more than 70 and South Carolina about 70.

Kirsten Olsen-Doolan, deputy communications director of the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, said: "The Legislature put in place a moratorium in 2008 on DHSMV accepting applications for new plates. That is slated to expire in 2014."

Paige Anne Biagi, legislative assistant to Rep. Dane Eagle, R-Cape Coral, said there was no current effort this session to extend that moratorium.

"However, given that it does not expire until 2014, it is possible we could see legislation next session to extend it," she said in an email to The News-Press.

Olsen-Doolen pointed out, though, that sponsors of new plates can go directly to the Legislature for approval.

That alternate route through the legislature is a popular one. In addition to the Freemasons, there are two other plates pending in the Florida Legislature to create. They are the "Fallen Law Enforcement Officers" license plate and - on the House side - the "Sun, Sea, and Smiles" tag, which would raise money for: the Florida Caribbean Charitable Foundation, Inc.; American Friends of Jamaica, Inc.; Haitian Neighborhood Center Sant La, Inc.; Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami, Inc.; Greater Caribbean American Cultural Coalition, Inc.; and Little Haiti Optimist Foundation, Inc.

The aforementioned Freemasonry plate would require an annual $25 fee, with revenue going to the Masonic Home Endowment Fund, Inc. The wildflower bill in the Senate has gained a little controversy among veteran-related charities.

The House version of the wildflower plate, which does not include the veterans' plate funding, was approved 117-0 on April 17.

With 15,497 plates already on the road showcasing wildflowers, increased fees could generate an additional $42,617 a year for the Florida Wildflower Foundation.

State statues outline how the special fees are disbursed to the sponsoring plate organizations.

"Whatever the organization sets their annual use fee to be, they get that," said Olsen-Doolan. "Fees range from $15 to $25. On behalf of the state, the regular portion of the registration fee comes to us, to be sent to General Revenue, etc."

Plates also regularly fall off the availability list. A specialty license plate will cease to be issued if the number of valid plates falls below 1,000 for at least 12 consecutive months. (This does not apply to the collegiate plates.)

Olsen-Doolan said there are no current plans to stop issuing a specific plate, but the St. John's River and Hispanic Achievers plates have dropped in popularity and could be crossed off the available list in the future.

Specialty plates in Florida first started in 1986 to honor the astronauts who perished in the Challenger space shuttle explosion. That first plate was updated in 2003 to include the Columbia shuttle disaster.

Since then plates have been added and some have been available for a limited period. For example, a Super Bowl plate was offered from 1989 to 1994 for the game's 25th anniversary and a plate honoring the 1992 World's Fair in Spain, and the state's participation in the fair, was offered until 1994.

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