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Licensed to Make a Statement -- and Tax the Willing -- in Florida

Specialty plates benefit groups and causes, but some say that the trend has crossed a line and leaves the state without an easily identifiable tag.

August 02, 2003|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — If protecting dolphins or finding a cure for breast cancer is your cause, Florida has a license plate for you. If you're more inclined to fishing, golfing or rooting for the Miami Dolphins, no problem. There are vehicle tags for all of that too.

To please constituents, promote worthy endeavors and raise funds in straitened times without taking the politically risky course of increasing taxes, Florida lawmakers had authorized, at last count, 88 specialty license plates that motor vehicle owners can buy for an additional fee of $15 to $25. Fifty-four are now on sale.

For hundreds of thousands of motorists in the Sunshine State, the plates have become an easy, visible way of promoting and supporting a cause, or displaying loyalty as an alumnus or fan. But one influential lawmaker believes the process is "out of control."

"We don't need any more license plates," said state Sen. Ron Klein, Democratic vice chairman of the Florida Senate's transportation committee. "Where do you draw the line? The number of causes is unlimited; there are thousands, tens of thousands."

On the rear of the car ahead, a motorist in Florida may now read:

Protect the Panther

Save the Manatee

Protect Wild Dolphins

Golf Capital of the World

Go Fishing

Keep Kids Drug Free

Other specialty plates say: Invest in Children. Share the Road. United We Stand. Support Special Olympics. End Breast Cancer. And more.

Drivers can opt for plates with the logo of their favorite Florida professional sports team, from the Dolphins of the National Football League to the Orlando Magic of the National Basketball Assn. There are plates for the state's universities and colleges. And still others for organizations like the Boy Scouts, Marine Corps and American Red Cross.

The American Assn. of Motor Vehicle Administrators doesn't keep uniform records for all 50 states, but Florida is hardly alone in embracing license plates as a lucrative revenue source. Lawmakers in Texas have approved more than 100, including "Fight Terrorism." In Maryland, where any nonprofit group with more than 25 members is entitled to its own special plate, there are nearly 500, including a plate for Corvette lovers.

California, in contrast, has few: 10 for cars, and an additional eight for motorcycles, according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles Web site.

The specialty plates, which in Florida are manufactured by inmates in state prisons, are a stealth tax imposed on the willing, Klein notes, like revenues from the state lottery. According to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, their sales have raised $235 million since 1987.

"The money received doesn't go into the general fund," said Robert Sanchez, department spokesman in Tallahassee. "Trust funds administer the money received for plates of the various environmental causes, such as the manatee, the whale, the dolphin or the Everglades. Money collected from the sale of public universities plates goes into trust funds for the enhancement of the schools, such as scholarships or endowed chairs."

Depending on the plate, proceeds may benefit stranded marine mammals, bicycle safety or the Police Athletic League.

"The plates provide funds otherwise unavailable," said Sanchez.

Two years ago, Nancy C. Detert, a Republican in the state House of Representatives, joked that if the number of tags kept expanding, soon Floridians would be able to buy one saying "I Used to Live in Michigan." But this spring, she successfully championed a plate that reads "Protect Our Reefs," one of 11 new selections authorized by the Legislature in 2003.

"I admit to having to eat crow," said Detert, a mortgage broker in the Gulf coast city of Venice. "If we have to find funds in tough economic times, if we have to fund services without raising taxes, specialty plates can help. Health and education will get funds [from general tax revenues]. Saving coral reefs won't."

Proceeds from the plate promoted by Detert will help finance a marine laboratory in Sarasota and protect fragile reefs in the Florida Keys, she said. But like Klein, she believes the number of tags for sale may have become too much of a good thing.

"There are so many plates, we can't even recognize a standard Florida plate," she said. For the record, it displays an orange and the slogan "Sunshine State." But according to Sanchez, it is being replaced. Some Floridians, he said, object that the citrus fruit looks like a peach -- the emblem of neighboring Georgia.

With the multiplication of consumer choices, Klein, who is Senate minority leader, said law enforcement officials have begun to complain to him that it's getting too confusing to recognize a Florida tag, another reason he wants to limit the options.

For while the most popular specialty plate, featuring the endangered Florida panther, sold more than 108,000 copies in 2002, a tag for alumni, faculty, students, families and anyone else with ties to New College in Sarasota was purchased by just 54 people.

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