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September 5, 2012

Nonprofits may drive debate over specialty plates

INDIANAPOLIS — Back in 1992, then-state Rep. Joyce Brinkman thought it was a good idea when the Legislature passed her bill that created a specialty license plate to generate money to conserve wildlife habitats around the state.

Little did she know it would open the door to scores of private groups clamoring for their own specialty plates as a way to raise cash for their organizations.

Twenty years after Indiana issued its first specialty plate — emblazoned with a bald eagle and the word “Environment” — to benefit the Indiana Heritage Trust, there are more than 100 state-issued  plates that generate millions of dollars for nonprofit groups.

That’s too many, Brinkman said Wednesday, after testifying in front of a legislative study committee that was pushed into taking up the specialty license plate issue this summer.

“I’m a fundraiser for a nonprofit organization now,” said Brinkman, who raises money for a poetry advocacy group, Brick Street Poetry Inc. “I’d love to have the state help me raise money, but I don’t think it’s the state’s job to do that.”

Others disagree. During Wednesday’s hearing, a lineup of nonprofit officials urged committee members not to kill the program that generated controversy last year when a specialty license plate was issued — and later rescinded — for a group that helps gay teens. Nancy Tibbett of Bicycle Indiana described the specialty plates as a “fundraising vehicle” needed to raise money for services that the state won’t fund. Her organization, which advocates for bicycle safety, benefits from the specialty license plate that reads “Share the Road.”

For every “Share the Road” plate issued by the Bureau of Motor Vehicles for an additional $40 fee, her organization gets $25. The same is true for a wide range of organizations with specialty plates, ranging from the National Rifle Association to the Rotary Club.

Tibbett described Hoosiers as a “frugal lot” who don’t like to donate money unless they can get something in return. What they get in return is a chance to express themselves on their license plates.

That’s why the state-issued specialty plates have been successful, she and others said. Last year, the state Bureau of Motor Vehicles issued more than 448,000 specialty plates.

Among the top sellers is the Indianapolis Colts specialty plate; those sales go to help defray the cost of building Lucas Oil Stadium, the Colts’ home stadium.

Five years ago, the Legislature gave up the job of approving specialty license plates and handed it over to the BMV, which set up a process for organizations to follow to be approved for a plate.

That process was called into question by a group of conservative legislators earlier this year, who were unhappy that the BMV approved a specialty plate for the Indiana Youth Group, an organization that aims to help gay teens.

A bill that would have set new rules for the specialty license plates failed during the session. But legislators created a new summer study committee, the Interim Study Committee on Special Group Recognition License Plates, and assigned it the task of coming up with a solution.  

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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