A lot on our plates State has 120 kinds of specialty license ta

Sunday, March 17, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Almost 30 colleges and universities have them. So do some city zoos and Missouri's professional sports teams. Specialty license plates are plentiful in Missouri and their numbers are likely to grow.

As of Jan. 8, Missouri had authorized 120 different specialty license plates -- compared to 13 in Kansas -- and 42 bills on the topic are pending in the Legislature, according to Department of Revenue records. There are more than 26,000 specialty plates on Missouri roads.

Despite the plates' apparent popularity, some Missouri lawmakers are wondering if enough is enough.

"We have got to draw a line somewhere, because we're going to have thousands of these," said Sen. Danny Staples, D-Eminence, a member of the Senate Transportation Committee.

$15 per plate

The Department of Revenue's $15 extra charge for each specialty plate generates more than $240,000 in revenue annually for the state.

But most of the featured schools and organizations benefit as well. In fact, all but five of the specialty plates can be ordered only by people who also make a donation to the team, organization or club.

To order a St. Louis Cardinals plate, for example, a vehicle owner must show proof of having made a $35 donation to the Cardinals. As of Jan. 8, according to the state, 1,106 people haad paid for the privilege.

The biggest revenue generator has been the Children's Trust Fund plate, which benefits programs for abused children. The plate has raised $181,100 from the 7,262 people who have ordered it.

Some lawmakers have expressed concern about approving plates that raise money for private organizations. There also have been questions about the number of plates that have been authorized but never requested.

For example, of the 62 different military plates, 17 have never been ordered. Unlike Kansas, which requires a minimum of 500 orders before a plate can be produced, Missouri provides plates to anyone who qualifies, like the lone supporter of the St. Louis Zoo.

"We're going to great lengths to do something that accomplishes very little," said Sen. Wayne Goode, D-St. Louis. "See what a mess this has turned into."

Missouri is among more than 40 states that have authorized specialty plates, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"It's not really a trend," said Melissa Savage, who oversees transportation issues for the conference. "Missouri is certainly not out of the ordinary."

But sometimes specialty plates can raise some eyebrows.

In Kansas, the state Senate has endorsed a bill creating a "Choose Life" license plate. The plate for Kansans for Life, the state's largest anti-abortion group, would require a charge of between $25 and $100 to raise money for a trust fund to promote adoption.

No problem for police

Despite their varying appearances, the plates aren't a problem for Missouri law enforcement. In fact, they're probably more of a problem for other state police forces.

"As long as they keep the numbers big and keep the color scheme, our officers don't have any problem with it," said Capt. Chris Ricks of the Missouri State Highway Patrol. "It does create problems for other states because they don't see our plates as often. It takes other states a while to figure them out."

Meanwhile, the Senate Transportation Committee may take action to stem the growth in the number of plates. An amendment attached to three bills would restrict specialty plates to governmental bodies, charities and certain foundations.

But Goode, who backed the changes, has no illusions about their potential impact.

"This isn't a final solution," he said.

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