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Monday, July 10, 2006

Specialized license plates aren't so special

Mary Beth Schneider of the Indianapolis Star wrote about Indiana specialized motor vehicle license plates in a story published in the Monday, July 10th issue.

She wrote about various groups which have petitioned the Bureau of Motor Vehicles for approval of new plates but which have been turned down. Some of those groups are not pleased. As for the number of such license plates issued each year, Ms. Schneider wrote:
About 4.7 million standard license plates for cars and trucks were issued in Indiana last year. Only about 313,000 were specialty plates. But the plates can be an important source of money for the groups that get the state designation, raising thousands of dollars and in a few cases more than $1 million.

There are two ways to get the plates: through the legislature and by directly appealing to the bureau and the governor. Plates have a fee of up to $25, plus a $15 fee that is divided between the BMV and a state highway fund.
The weblog Taking Down Words noted the story in a post earlier today. I would like to add a few reflections on this topic.

The advent of the specialized license plate can really be traced back to the early 1980's. Prior to that, the Indiana State Police command was vigorous in advising the Indiana General Assembly to not establish a specialized plate program. After all, license plates are used to identify motor vehicles. A multiplicity of designs and numbering schemes makes it difficult to report the plate number on a vehicle that has been involved in a traffic violation or been used in the commission of a crime.

This was also the position of Governor Otis Bowen's administration. Governor Bowen was mindful of the public safety arguments advanced by the ISP. However, he was also mindful of how specialized plates would affect the Indiana legislature.

Governor Bowen had served as House Speaker from 1966 until his election as Governor in 1972 and was familiar with the pleas of legislators to allow legislation to create specialized plates. Doc Bowen was consistent in heading off those attempts as a distraction from dealing with the substantive problems of Indiana which were before the legislature.

Legislators could easily satisfy a constituent by sponsoring a specialized license plate bill. It was that rare sort of legislation. It didn't offend anyone (usually) and, since it was self-financed, didn't cost any tax money.

Governor Bowen knew that the first specialized plate would beget more specialized plate requests. Legislators who sponsored the first plates insisted that wouldn't be the case; but that "approval was important for ____________(insert name of special interest here). We won't approve any additional ones." Well, of course, the floodgates opened once the first ones were approved. In recent years, the number of requests got so numerous the legislature created an application and approval process which was centered in the BMV.

Even legislators realized the flood of requests was too much. The original idea that specialized plates were a way to satisfy constituents without giving offense gave way to the realization that the monster which had been created could never be sated. As the General Assembly began saying no to some groups, legislators found out that the specialized license plate effort could, indeed, make people mad.

The whole specialized license plate debate is a distraction and not a core function of government.

Governor Bowen had the right idea about the whole thing.

Oh my gosh. Specialised plates. Ours went all the way to the Supreme Court.

Stay away from them if you can. They are more trouble than they're worth.
Ah, Doc Bowen. Those were the good old days; it was easy to be proud to be a

When I was living in Virginia twelve or thirteen years ago among a truly staggering load of varying plate designs, I read a newspaper story about the state's inability even to insure that tag numbers were unique, let alone the confusion caused to troopers by all the custom plate designs.

And don't even get me started on state lotteries. We don't have one in Alabama - yet.
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