Special cause license plates vex Minn. lawmakersby Brian Bakst, Associated Press
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Protect the environment. Support the troops. Show some college pride.
Special Minnesota license plates that act as state-sanctioned billboards and fundraising tools for various causes are causing angst among some lawmakers, who are worried about where to draw the line and whether they're actually a losing proposition.
Another handful of special plate requests are before the Legislature this year. The House Transportation Committee heard Tuesday from backers of proposed plates to raise breast cancer awareness and research dollars, to recognize retired firefighters, to promote organ donation and to help the American Red Cross raise disaster relief money.
Breast cancer survivor Dawn Jesse of Janesville, Minn., shared her harrowing account of being diagnosed as she told the committee that the breast cancer awareness plates would make a difference.
Jesse said it's about "keeping people aware 365 days a year -- and not just once in a while. Whenever you see a license plate, maybe you will be reminded it's time to go in" for a checkup.
Her husband, John Jesse, was more emphatic. "We can all be heroes. We can save a life," he said.
Those plates would also require people seeking them to make a minimum $20 donation to a University of Minnesota cancer research center.
The batch of proposed plates would add to a collection of plate variations that now tops 200, according to state officials. That includes the standard-issue blue and white plates with a forest scene and the "Explore Minnesota" motto.
The committee didn't vote on any of the bills but the chairman, Rep. Ron Erhardt, said he would consider moving each of them ahead later this year. Some lawmakers admit it's tough to say no, but they worry that many special plates aren't making up for the cost to produce them.
"It's always a good cause. We have to think about the practical," Rep. Linda Runbeck, R-Circle Pines, told one group pressing for a niche plate. "There are very few special plates that are issued in any significant quantity."
In 2003, lawmakers approved a law requiring people pushing for a new plate design to prove they could sell at least 10,000 of them. They also were required to plunk down $20,000 to cover the front-end development costs. But both requirements have been waived on occasion.
Once new plates enter circulation, they are rarely retired -- even when they are poor sellers. For instance, plates catering to University of Minnesota Crookston alumni have been available since 1991 but there were only four vehicles in the state with them as of June.
"There is that big fat list of special plates that have not been successful or are not being successful," said Erhardt, DFL-Edina. "Everybody has a bill in their back of their mind for someone they'd like to honor on a plate."
One of the bills before lawmakers would mandate a state report each year on the number of plates issued, the donations collected and the use of the money.
Most of the plates require motorists to pay an add-on fee of $10, and some also demand a separate annual contribution of $25 or $30 to a dedicated fund.
The six variations of "Critical Habitat" license plates have generated more than $19 million since their debut in 1996 and have been issued to more than 100,000 motorists. "Support Our Troops" plates, established in 2005, have brought in more than $4 million in special fees for programs that assist military families and veterans; the SUV that ferries the governor around has the patriotic-themed plates.
The 26 collegiate plates raise money for a scholarship fund. In 2010, the collegiate plate program generated $70,000 for scholarships.
Some plates are more narrowly tailored, such as the "Remembering Victims of Impaired Drivers" set or the "Volunteer Ambulance Attendant" plates for part-time emergency medical technicians.