Plans for new plates have MVA seeing red

The Free State is adrift in logo license tags. There are tags that pay homage to streetcars, firefighters, dental hygienists and square dancing. Tags to venerate veterans, poets and duckpin bowling. Tags honoring fast cars, fancy cars, old cars and even the fluffy West Highland white terrier.

There are 656 ways to stand out on the road, with 30 designs in the wings, plus two full-color scenic plates that raise funds to protect the Chesapeake Bay and Maryland agriculture. Now legislators from around the state have proposed the creation of four more of the fancy plates.

The Motor Vehicle Administration is crying uncle - saying the burden is already too great on a pinched staff, and the return isn't worth the effort.

"Time-consuming" is what the agency's legislative liaison told lawmakers as senators and delegates consider new color tags commemorating Western Maryland's mountains, education, Operation Iraqi Freedom and the University of Maryland's mascot.

The MVA opposes all four bills - and hopes to persuade lawmakers to settle for organizational logo tags that are easier and cheaper to produce. But sponsors of the plates, keen to divert attention or hundreds of thousands of dollars toward their causes, insist there is room for theirs.

"The fact is, the university is in trouble financially," said Del. Barbara Frush, a Democrat representing Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, who sponsored a bill to create specially designed registration plates honoring the diamondback terrapin. Proceeds from the "Fear the Turtle" tags would support environmental science and athletic department scholarships at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"These plates would put money back into two good causes," Frush said.

Sen. J. Robert Hooper, a Harford County Republican, wants a tag in appreciation for members of the armed forces who serve in Iraq.

"When these guys and gals go to fight for our freedoms and the freedoms of those folks over there, we should recognize them," Hooper said.

But recognition comes at a price. Legislative analysts project that the creation and distribution of 40,000 mountain tags next year would cost $420,700 and raise only $400,000. Over each subsequent year, the net effect is expected to diminish as the tags' novelty waned.

And the administrative burden, said the MVA's Gail Moran, would only multiply if lawmakers approve all four plates.

"The MVA promotes these plates, has them manufactured and makes them available to all 16 full-service branches and many vehicle dealerships," she explained.

The burden is made heavier by a three-year hiring freeze and budget constraints that mean fewer MVA employees to title and register vehicles.

The complications began in 1985, when a handful of nonprofit organizations asked the state to produce special plates for their supporters. The plates had no artwork, just three letters that indicated the group, followed by three numbers. For six years, it was enough. Then the Maryland Democratic Party and the Vietnam Veterans of America demanded something a little more graphic, a logo on the left where the letters would have been, followed by four numbers.

Meanwhile, a similar trend was under way in other states. No longer were drivers limited to turquoise-and-yellow tags in New Jersey, or to blue-and-white plates in Virginia.

Motorists began snapping up handsome plates with custom designs and bright colors. Maryland drew the line at two plates; Tennessee drivers can choose from more than 75 designs and Texas has more than 150.

Florida lists 84 of its most popular plates online. Since 1990, motorists there have purchased more than a million tags to protect the endangered Florida panther, making the plate the most popular for four years running and raising $37 million to fund conservation research.

It is that kind of money that lures Maryland lawmakers to propose widening the selection of full-color scenic plates here.

But the "Treasure the Chesapeake" and "Our Farms, Our Future," tags, though popular, haven't been as lucrative.

During the past 14 years, Maryland motorists have purchased more than 1 million of the bay plates, raising about $11 million to fund Chesapeake Bay Trust projects to rebuild wetlands, plant trees and bay grasses, and restore oyster and fish populations. Another 92,500 of the farm plates have sold since 2001, generating $1.1 million to support the Maryland Agricultural Education Foundation, which promotes agriculture in the state's schools.

Neither organization takes a position on the pending license plate legislation.

But, said David O'Neill, Chesapeake Bay Trust executive director, "there's always the concern that more plates could mean fewer dollars for everyone. The dilution factor."

Obtaining a logo tag adds steps to the registration process - and sometimes a premium. Maryland's Westie Rescue group charges a tax-deductible $25 donation for the privilege of sporting a white license plate with a black-and-blue terrier logo. In return, the organization sends out a signed MVA application that can be mailed or taken to the MVA offices in Glen Burnie - along with another $25 check payable to the state to license the vehicle.

Those are minor hassles, said Mike Pugh, fleet captain of Abingdon's Bush River Yacht Club.

Pugh, who arranged for his club's specialty tags, snagged BRY 0001 for his truck. For Pugh, prestige is as much about low digits as it is about affiliation.

"It's so much different to belong to a yacht club than to a marina," Pugh explained. "Having one of these lets people know that they belong to a prestigious organization."

But hundreds of different logo tags on the road can also complicate traffic enforcement.

Hyattsville Police Chief Douglas Holland, Annapolis liaison for the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association, said unfamiliar designs can make identifying the issuing state a little tougher in high-speed situations.

Plus, with many organizations distributing plates numbered 0000 to 0050, duplicate tag numbers abound.

"If the number is all we have to go on, then we're going to have to search through all the records to identify the vehicle," said Lt. Robert F. Bambary, commander of the Automotive Safety Enforcement Section of the Maryland State Police.

Still, said Capt. Tom Williams, legislative liaison for the Maryland State Police, "adding another five or 10 isn't going to make a difference."

Moran, the MVA's State House liaison, is encouraging bill sponsors to consider logo tags as an alternative to the jazzier scenic plates.

The MVA persuaded a Baltimore booster group to settle for "I love city life" organizational plates, but the sell is harder among lawmakers.

"It's true the logo tags can raise money, but not at the same rate" as scenic plates, said Frush. "We really feel that the commemorative plates will enhance both the [UM] environmental science department and the athletic department tremendously."