Wildlife group takes on tag fees

Jim Blaylock/Staff
Cindy Kane, Columbia County's motor vehicle registrar, displays one of the specialty tags that people are turning in rather than paying a new $35 fee to renew each year.

Georgia's Wildlife Federation will launch an effort to repeal new fees that have caused sales and renewal of special license plates for wildlife programs to plummet.

"It was a terrible decision on the part of the appropriators," said Jerry McCollum, the group's president. "It's really nothing more than a cleverly disguised tax increase."

The new law that took effect last May hit Georgians who own specialty license plates with an annual renewal fee of $35.

The sale of wildlife plates -- including the popular bald eagle, quail, hummingbird and trout tags -- provide critical funding to the state's nongame wildlife program and its array of conservation and land management programs, said Rick Lavender, a spokesman for the nongame section.

Previously, the only cost associated with such tags was the initial $25 purchase fee, of which $22 went to programs such as the state's Bobwhite Quail Initiative or the Nongame Wildlife Conservation Fund.

The owners could keep the tag indefinitely with no additional charge.

Under the new rule, a $35 fee is required every year, of which just $10 goes to wildlife programs, with $22 sent to the general fund. The remaining $3 is for administrative costs.

"Not only did they raise the fee but they decided they would make us pay it annually," McCollum said. "Technically speaking, it is a personal contribution. We're already paying the tax, and the money for a vanity tag is over and above the price of the ad valorem vehicle tax. It was supposed to be a personal contribution from people who want to show support for the programs."

Outside of repealing the new law, another option would be to amend the rule and allow all of the fee money to go to the designated beneficiary programs.

"I don't hold out a lot of hope, frankly, but we would like to try," he said.

An analysis of wildlife tag data from the first four months of the new fee program has both positive and negative repercussions, Lavender said.

The sale of new plates declined by 71.1 percent, while renewals dropped 39.5 percent.

In spite of that decline, and the fact that just $10 of the new fees will go to wildlife programs, initial projections show a slight increase in revenues -- from the annual average of $1.91 million to as much as $2.1 million.

The big question, Lavender said, is whether enough people will continue to buy and renew their plates once they are fully aware of the additional annual cost.

Fee causes drop in tag renewals
Ga. drivers oppose paying more for special tags