The License Game

Not long ago, getting a license plate for your car was a simple matter of standing in a long line at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, and then exchanging a check for a standard, government-issue plate. With plain numbers and letters, and the Massachusetts tagline, the plates wouldn’t win any design awards–but that seemed to be the point. You could make your personal statements with bumper stickers or alma mater decals. The license plate was meant to be a generic identifier in the event your auto became involved in a serious matter, such as speeding away from a just-robbed bank.

But that was then. In recent years creative thinking has hit the state bureaucracy–with a vengeance. Designer license plates were born, and are now proliferating.

It started with the best of intentions. Why not offer drivers a premium plate and use the extra money to support a good cause? The Legislature liked the idea. So, in 1991 a special plate was designed as a tribute to the Springfield-based Basketball Hall of Fame.

Now, in addition to a half-dozen styles of plates for U.S. war veterans, there are three more specialty plates: one honoring Massachusetts Olympians, one in tribute to Cape Cod, and one that benefits the state’s Environmental Trust Fund. The environmental plate, featuring the tail of a right whale, has been the biggest hit–generating more than $2 million in revenue for the trust fund in the last two and a half years. The Basketball Hall of Fame plate hasn’t quite moved into the fast lane–only 1,091 drivers have gone for it.

Sporting special plates to save the whales.

Now it’s become an annual event in the Legislature to see which charitable groups are well connected enough to get a license plate bill passed. The portion of the proceeds for specialty plates that goes to the beneficiary group is typically between $25-$40 per plate.

Eager to recognize senior citizens or their local Lions Club, lawmakers introduce more than 100 custom-made-plate bills each year. When the measures languish and eventually die in the Public Safety Committee, as most do, their sponsors often reintroduce them during the next session. In an effort to bypass the Public Safety Committee, which frowns upon most of these measures, a plate patron may try to tack his or her bill onto the gargantuan budget bill. Just try telling dog lovers or members of the Lincoln Sailing Center (actual proposals) that they don’t deserve a plate of their own!

“The issue is a headache for anybody who has to touch it.”

“The issue is a headache for anybody who has to touch it,” says Mark Finnegan, legislative director for the Joint Committee on Public Safety, which has jurisdiction over an ever-growing number of plate proposals on Beacon Hill. As a result, Rep. Paul E. Caron, D-Springfield, the committee’s former House Chairman, proposed guidelines that would require groups lobbying for their own plate to produce a list of 1,000 or more prospective buyers before the Legislature would be allowed to approve the plate. Caron believes that would discourage lawmakers from introducing bills that have a narrow appeal.

The Registry of Motor Vehicles has the power to issue specialty plates but has left the task–a “political hot potato,” according to Registry spokesman Aubrey Haznar–up to the Legislature.

The Registry and law enforcement officials complain the plates cause administrative problems and confuse police officers because the same number can appear on different plates. Moreover, Massachusetts already offers more than 100 different designations on its standard plates, available to everyone from county commissioners to doctors.

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But it looks like there are more specialty plates on the drawing boards.

A pro-child-care plate pushed vigorously by former Speaker of the House Charles Flaherty, and a Western Massachusetts plate, temporarily fell victim to bickering between House and Senate conferees before they were finally approved late last year. A University of Massachusetts plate came close to the finish line but got hung up. The sticking point? If UMass got a plate, Northeastern University wanted one too.