TALLAHASSEE — Some rules in the capital are made to be broken, including one that said “enough” to the ever-growing number of Florida’s specialty license plates.
The number of approved specialty tags has grown to 120, including those commemorating schools, sports teams, the armed forces, environmental and health concerns.
Lawmakers agreed in 2008 to a suspension of specialty tag approvals, but new ones keep coming. A loophole allowed plates that were already in the application process to continue forward.
Despite the moratorium, which doesn’t end till July, a “Fallen Law Enforcement Officers” plate (SB 132) has cleared three committees unanimously this session. Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, is sponsoring the bill.
Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, voted in favor of the plate. But that was after throwing up her hands in frustration at a recent meeting in the Capitol.
“I was here when the moratorium was established and every year, we fought it,” she said. “You know what? I’m giving up now … I’m throwing in the towel.”
She said she’ll support future requests, but also expressed a frustration that many have with the plates’ proliferation: “I look at them as I’m driving and say, ‘That can’t be a Florida plate.’”
Law enforcement has complained for years that the increase in and diverse design of specialty plates makes it difficult for officers and crime witnesses to quickly identify a Florida vehicle.
Amy Mercer, executive director of the Florida Police Chiefs Association, says the organization hasn’t taken a position on individual plates.
“In the past, though, the chiefs have had concerns with the high number of plates and I’m not aware of any change in that position,” she said.
At the same time, specialty plate fans say there wouldn’t be so many if they weren’t so popular with motorists.
Specialty plates cost $15 to $25 a year above the standard registration fee.
In 2013, more than 137,000 specialty tags were sold and 1.2 million were renewed, creating revenue of nearly $34 million, according to the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
The money the tags generate goes to charities, such as the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, that are affiliated with the plate’s themes.
“The tag has been absolutely incredible for us,” said Ron Hosler, program administrator, referring to the Estuary Program’s “Tarpon” tag.
It’s made $1.5 million for the organization since 2001, including about $120,000 last year.
The money funds the program’s “bay minigrants,” in which successful applicants get up to $5,000 for proposals that benefit the estuary, Hosler said.
Lawmakers also required groups that proposed a new specialty plate to “pre-sell” 1,000 of them in a two-year period before they would be manufactured.
Recently, a Senate panel OK’d an exception, granting extensions to the Hispanic Achievers and St. John’s River plates to meet their sales goals.
Miami Democrat Gwen Margolis, a former Senate president, disagreed with that show of leniency.
“We got a little unnerved by all these license plates being on the street and we said there has to be a certain amount of pre-sales,” she said. Now, “if everybody thinks we should start to make a bunch of license plates again, amen.
“But I think we’re wasting a lot of energy on license plates. … We tightened it down and now we seem to be untightening it more and more,” Margolis added.
The Legislature approved the first specialty plate in 1986 to honor astronauts killed aboard space shuttle Challenger, which exploded shortly after takeoff earlier that year.
The list of specialty tags now includes the “Imagine” plate honoring musician John Lennon, “Stop Heart Disease” and “Support Soccer,” to name a few.
Some proposed but unapproved plates have caused division over the last few years.
A “Confederate Heritage” license plate, with a Confederate flag logo, would have funded graveyard maintenance and educational programs run by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
And former Sen. Gary Siplin, an Orlando Democrat, proposed an “Trinity” tag, originally envisioned with an image of Jesus Christ.
The state must discontinue a specialty license plate if its sales numbers fall below 1,000 plates for 12 consecutive months.
Only seven plates have been discontinued, according to records. They include a tag for the Tampa Bay Storm, which did not maintain the sales requirement. It stopped in January 2002.
Still, if the Senate is any indication, specialty tag measures will continue to arise next year.
At a recent meeting, Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, joked that if Latvala’s bill passes, he has “three or four” new plates he wants to propose.
That had Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, piling on, saying he too had ideas for specialty tags.
“Hey, more is better,” Evers said.