Ga. drivers oppose paying more for special tags

Many Georgians are saying "no" to a new annual fee imposed on owners of specialty motor vehicle license plates.

"Folks are turning in their one-time-only fee plates right and left," Columbia County Tax Commissioner Kay Allen said. "We don't have an exact figure, but we know it's several hundred so far."

House Bill 1055, signed into law last summer, added a $35 renewal fee to holders of most specialty plates, including those designed to generate revenue for Georgia's nongame wildlife programs.

Previously, specialty tag holders paid a one-time charge of $25 to buy the plate, and the standard $20 renewal fee imposed on all vehicle owners, along with the ad valorem tax owed.

The new law increased the initial purchase cost of those tags to $35 and added an annual "tag renewal fee" of $35 just to keep the plate.

"This is what's getting everyone's goat," Allen said. "They bought the tag because it was helping out wildlife, and it was a one-time fee. Now they're being told there is a fee every year."

Because car tags are renewed each year on the owner's birthday, tag owners are gradually learning about the new fee. Many exchange their specialty tag for a standard one, which carries no additional fee each year.

Those exchanges, Allen added, are creating shortages of tags.

"Right now, we are begging for plates, and we're having to borrow them from other counties because we don't have enough," Allen said. "The bigger problem is that Atlanta has no plates, either, and they are having to manufacture more of them."

Georgia offers 89 specialty tags dedicated to everything from educators and Realtors to amateur radio and children's health care -- and sales of those plates are down.

"Right now, some people might be keeping the old ones but we don't have many requests for new ones," said Nancy Mims, the director of motor vehicles for Augusta-Richmond County.

Many vehicle owners who choose a regular tag in lieu of their specialty plate simply renew online and do not have to turn in their specialty plate physically, Mims said, which makes it harder to track how many specialty tag owners are giving up their plates.

"We're just starting to get some numbers from the Department of Revenue, and we're trying to see what it will mean for us," said Rick Lavender, spokesman for the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division's Nongame Conservation Section. That office relies heavily on sales of eagle and hummingbird plates, which have raised about $26 million since the program began in 1997.

Previously, $22 of the $25 fee to buy a bald eagle or hummingbird plate was returned to the wildlife program. Under the new system, $10 from the sale of each new plate and $10 from each renewal will be designated for the conservation programs.

Some tags, such as personalized "prestige" plates -- and those supporting the University of Georgia and other colleges and universities -- already had an annual $25 renewal fee, which increased to $35 under the new law.

"What we're seeing is that those college plates aren't being turned back in like a lot of the ones that had no annual fee," Mims said.

A list of specialty plates and current fees:

http://motor.etax.dor.ga.gov/forms/pdf/motor/Sponsor%20or%20Commemorative%20License%20Plate%20Fees.pdf

Photo samples of specialty plates:

http://motor.etax.dor.ga.gov/motor/plates/platesamples.aspx

House Bill 1055: Read the entire bill:

www1.legis.ga.gov/legis/2009_10/fulltext/hb1055.htm