Specialty license plate fees drive off drivers

Long-term effect could be harsh for wildlife programs

hduncan@macon.comMay 11, 2013 

The state division that protects and improves the state’s wildlife is watching its source of income disappear into the rear view mirror, along with the specialty license plates that once supported it.

Three years ago, Georgia hiked the costs of all its specialty plates and added an annual renewal fee. At the same time, it began diverting the majority of the proceeds from specialty tag sales to the state’s general fund instead of the programs championed by the tags.

Since then, Georgians have turned away in droves from the plates that were intended to benefit causes from wildlife protection to cancer screenings.

Middle Georgia state Rep. Willie Talton, R-Warner Robins, sponsored a bill during this year’s legislative session that would reverse the way license plate revenue is split, giving the lion’s share back to the sponsoring agency.

“My purpose was to get that money going toward the charitable organization they bought (the tag) for,” said Talton, who years before helped establish the Joanna McAfee Foundation license plate to support childhood cancer research. “It’s just fair.”

Talton said he hopes to hold hearings this summer on the proposal, which remains alive under the Motor Vehicle Committee. He said state Sen. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, has said he would carry the bill in the Senate.

Although the addition of an annual renewal fee initially boosted income from specialty tags, agencies like the non-game division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources are concerned that these gains will soon be offset by the drop in public participation in the tag program.

Wildlife benefits

The non-game division is a rare state program that receives no money from the state budget. Traditionally, 60 percent of its entire operating budget comes from the license plates featuring a bald eagle or a hummingbird. The remainder comes from donations, investments and the annual Weekend for Wildlife fundraiser.

The agency uses that income to leverage thousands more in federal grants to help restore habitat, conduct research on threatened species like the gopher tortoise, and sometimes even purchase land such as the Fall Line Sand Hills Natural Area in Taylor County.

Mike Harris, chief of the DNR non-game conservation section, said the license plate changes haven’t caused cuts to the wildlife program yet, partly because it had a reserve that totalled about $7 million at the end of fiscal 2012. But the rate of decline in plate purchases doesn’t bode well for the future, Harris said.

DNR programs that support trout fishing and bobwhite quail habitat also have plates that have seen the same steady drops. The Bobwhite Quail Initiative has seen a 53 percent drop in the number of its license plates in service since the price change, DNR documents show. Just three people bought a new Trout Unlimited license plate in February.

“The bottom line is the number of new plates being issued is down by about 90 percent from before the fee change, which was a low point in the cycle,” because no new plate designs had been issued, Harris said. “And 60 percent of the people who had the plates have turned them in.”

That includes many who still support the work of the non-game wildlife program.

Pierre Howard, executive director of the Conservancy, gave up his non-game tag.

“When the state government got under budget pressure, they started taking money they expressly said would be used for other purposes and using it for the general fund, and I think that greatly undermined public confidence in the process,” he said. “It’s not right and it’s not fair, and it needs to be corrected.”

Changes made after audit

The change was made in 2010, partly in response to recommendations made that year by the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts. Its performance audit of the specialty license plates suggested that charging three fees for every new plate, plus an annual renewal fee, could earn the state an additional $24 million a year. Even if participation dropped by half, revenue would increase $11.7 million, auditors predicted.

The audit also recommended that the state more aggressively market its specialty plates.

The Legislature followed the audit’s chief recommendations by standardizing and increasing the cost of specialty plates. The price tag was set at $60 (up from $25, in many cases) with a new $35 annual fee.

Just $10 of the revenue each year now goes to the cause supported by the plate, such as children’s health care, highway beautification, or spaying and neutering pets. Almost all the rest goes to the state’s general fund. No additional funding was provided to market the plates.

A follow-up review by state auditors in September 2012 found that participation had dropped by more than expected. The number of plates newly issued and renewed decreased by 60 percent and 35 percent respectively.

Among the 14 plates that supported state agencies, 76 percent fewer were issued, and less than half were renewed.

Two of six state agencies with specialty plates saw a decrease in revenue along with a drop in new purchases and renewals.

But others got a bump in revenue. The pet sterilization program received enough additional funding that the Georgia Department of Agriculture was able to increase the number of state-funded sterilization procedures that veterinarians can perform per month and even develop block grants to provide local animal shelters.

The DNR, too, saw revenue gains because of the renewal fee. In 2010, the non-game program earned $885,236 from the tags, according to data provided by Harris.

In 2011, after the price increase, revenue climbed to $1.9 million. As fewer drivers participated, revenue dropped to $1.5 million in 2012. That drop is projected to continue at a rate of 26 percent by the end of fiscal 2013 this summer.

Although these numbers are still higher than just before the fee changes, they aren’t necessarily an improvement on overall past performance. Between 2003 and 2009 the mean annual revenue for the non-game plates was $2 million, DNR documents show. That was during the period when the DNR earned $19 to $22 per new license plate.

General fund the winner

Harris said the department hopes to boost license plate sales when it unveils new designs in June for its eagle, quail and trout license plates.

Harris said the DNR would like the annual renewal fee to remain, but DNR officials are hearing the cost of a new tag is too much.

“And we’d like as much as we can get in revenue sharing for the program,” Harris said.

From the time of the price change through the first half of fiscal 2013, license plate revenue for the wildlife resources division has totaled $6.2 million, while the general fund has earned $16.2 million from the same plates, DNR documents show.

Talton’s bill would reverse the current split by providing the general fund $10 and the sponsoring agency $25 of the license plate costs. The bill also would add many new specialty license plates, some of which would not be subject to a split at all.

Houston County outdoor writer John Trussell said he supports Talton’s proposal, although he thinks the annual fee will remain a deterrent.

“I had six wildlife tags at one time, and now I have none, because it’s just too expensive,” he said.

Howard expressed confidence that state leaders will correct the problem, adding that his organization and others need to make a better case that the non-game wildlife program is important and should be funded in the state budget.

“I was involved in working on a lot of state budgets for a long time, and I can tell you there’s a lot of stuff in there that ain’t near as important as this,” said Howard, a past lieutenant governor of Georgia.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.

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