The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

February 28, 2013

Special license plates generate $1.2 million

By Mannix Porterfield
Register-Herald Reporter

CHARLESTON — Special license plates, ranging from the ever-popular ones honoring NASCAR heroes, or simply conveying a name or cutesy message, are pumping $1.2 million in revenue annually in West Virginia.

And three-fourths of that is destined for the state road fund, Deputy Motor Vehicles Commissioner Steve Dale informed lawmakers this week.

Ever since the state began issuing special plates, the program has grown to its current status of 112 specific ones.

Not a session of the Legislature passes that some new ones aren’t proposed, Dale told the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Some are the generic eligibility types, such as wildlife plates that feature a whitetail deer, while others have specific groups in mind, such as Purple Heart recipients, Lions Club, Knights of Columbus and Fraternal Order of Police.

The state charges $30 for the basic registration of such plates, an additional $15 fee and the annual $15 renewal, Dale explained.

By a voter-approved amendment in the mid-1990s, the extra $15 collected for non-game wildlife is detoured to the Division of Natural Resources, he told the committee.

“Each year, we have a number of bills to authorize new plates,” Dale said.

And the 2013 session certainly is no exception. Already, legislation has been offered to pay tribute to the Hatfield-McCoy Trail, designate the hearing impaired, and proclaim “In God We Trust.”

Of the 1.3 million registered passenger car owners, only about 7 percent elect to get a revenue-producing special plate, Dale said.

Groups may bypass legislative action and get a plate on their own provided they can guarantee purchase by 250 motorists, he pointed out.

“Initial enthusiasm is dampened somewhat when they come to the brass tacks of finding the minimum number of people to get the license plates,” Dale told the senators.

“You’re targeting a pretty narrow segment of the population.”

By the numbers, racing enthusiasts outpace all other West Virginians when it comes to special plates. NASCAR boasts 10 such plates, and some bear the numbers of favorite drivers — for instance, there’s the No. 24, familiar to Jeff Gordon’s faithful.

The state allows nonprofit groups to see a special plate by directly applying, and must be a 501-c-3, non-profit group, or individuals can appeal to a lawmaker to sponsor a specific bill. This two-pronged approach has been in force since 2010.

Any applications to the state must be fulfilled within a six-month frame.

“Otherwise, groups may spend years trying to collect 250 applications,” Dale said.

“Checks become stale and the applicants become nervous because their standard plates are getting ready to expire.”

Standard and scenic plates can be personalized for a fee in what is known as the vanity plate. Many use their names or a clever message, and care is exercised to make sure it isn’t naughty.

Dale says the state seldom sees an attempt to sneak in an off-color message, cloaked in a misspelling.

“We turn them down,” he said, adding West Virginia has been fortunate in avoiding court battles that have occurred in other states.

“Virginia had an issue concerning Iraqi veterans with a reference to the natives,” he added.

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com