Originally created 02/22/98

License plates giving grief



ATLANTA -- Georgians went so wild over the new wildlife license plate that lawmakers now want to issue more -- for such pet political causes as sterilization of dogs and cats, the anti-abortion movement and others.

Meanwhile, state officials this year are making it harder to win approval of new promotional plates because the more than 50 already on the books create headaches for administrators and police.

"These tags are good for the state because they raise money ... but it's an administrative nightmare," said Milton Dufford, deputy commissioner of motor vehicles for the Department of Revenue.

Of the 7 million vehicle registrations in Georgia, more than 600,000 car owners now bear a specialty plate, which costs up to $50 extra. Others buy the regular $20 Georgia on My Mind plate.

While design-your-own vanity plates and ones promoting colleges or honoring war veterans have been around for years, fewer than 60,000 people have them on their cars. Plates designed for the Summer Olympics and Paralympics were popular and generated more than $1.2 million, but they expired after 1996.

The numbers of special plates skyrocketed only last year, when the wildlife plate was issued. More than 560,000 people have paid the extra $15 for the plate, which features a bird in the wild. The plate has generated a whopping $7 million for the state's wildlife fund.

"I guess people thought it was a good cause, and it's a good-looking tag," Mr. Dufford said.

That success has state administrators bracing for a flurry of new proposals for special plates. For police, matching owners to special plates has become more difficult. Officers not only have to call in the number on the plate, but the name of the group it's promoting, because duplicate numbers are issued for special plates.

"The biggest problem we've seen is that you can't read what's on the tag because the print or the symbol is so small," said Sid Miles, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety. "If you stop someone with a special tag and it's number 567, you've got to get real close to figure out if that's a University of Georgia tag or a Georgia Tech tag or something else."

To discourage a rush of new proposals, the state has tightened the rules so that groups seeking a special plate only to promote their cause -- not to raise money -- no longer will have to go to the Legislature. Instead, they may apply directly to the state, but must have a minimum of 1,000 car owners committed to buying that plate before the state will issue it. Previously, the minimum was 500 car owners.

Among the pending proposals for such promotional special plates are "Choose Life," for the anti-abortion movement; one for the Georgia Bowlers Association; and one promoting the organization 100 Black Men of America.

"We changed that so that (the Legislature) wouldn't have to be in the position of approving or disapproving tags that might be morally offensive to some. You could come up with all kinds of awful tags if you wanted to," said House Motor Vehicles Chairman Bobby Parham, D-Milledgeville.