Following the Cash Behind Maine's License Plates
Conservation license plates play an important role in funding key projects at the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the Bureau of Parks and Lands. In these days of diminished General Fund support for these programs, those who, literally, step up to the plate, are making significant contributions.
Unfortunately, one of the two conservation plates has experienced a nosedive in public support. The “loon plate” peaked with sales of 111,082 in Fiscal Year 1999. In the FY 10, just ended on July 1, only 54,616 conservation plates were sold, a 51 percent decrease in a single decade. The decline has been steady, with fewer plates sold each year than the previous year.
The sportsman’s plate, on sale for just two full years, enjoyed a 50 percent sales increase between FY 09 and FY 10. A total of 13,123 plates were sold in FY 10, higher sales than were initially projected.
Before we examine the details of each plate, let me recognize and thank Gary Hinkley, Director of Vehicle Services in the Secretary of State’s office, for providing me with all of the numbers and for answering my sometimes foolish questions. The man knows his plates!
Any errors in the information below are mine, not his. The financials of each plate are complex, as you will see.
Created with high hopes in 1994, this conservation plate initially attracted many buyers as a handsome alternative to the detested and unattractive regular plate featuring a red lobster. Sales increased steadily over a six-year period before beginning to plummet at the start of the new decade in 2000.
In seventeen years this plate generated $9,798,696.60 for state parks (this includes a revenue estimate for FY 10 rather than actual figures). Much of that money was spent on physical infrastructure. Many of the projects were long-delayed maintenance that couldn’t be achieved because of a chronic lack of funding.
Buyers initially pay $20 for their loon plates, while renewals cost $15. Six dollars of the initial fee goes to the Highway Fund and startup costs for the plate. From renewals, $1 goes to the Specialty Plate Fund and the rest goes into the Maine Environmental Trust Fund.
The Specialty Plate Fund is a non-lapsing fund administered by the Secretary of State and is spent to produce the plates. The fund is used, for example, to purchase materials including aluminum, scotchlite sheeting, and chemicals (yes, your conservation plate contains chemicals!).
It costs between $6 and $8 to make a set of two specialty plates, depending on the number of colors.
The money from the environmental trust fund is divided this way: 60 percent to the Maine State Parks Fund and 40 percent to the Maine Endangered and Nongame Wildlife Fund. The legislature and governor decide how that money is to be spent, within the designated programs, as part of the state budget process.
Despite substantial promotion and marketing of the loon plate, the number of buyers continues to deteriorate. The plate's supporters have made numerous suggestions for changes to perk up plate sales, but nothing to date has reversed the decline.
Although its initial colorful design featuring a large whitetail deer and book trout, created by IF&W’s former marketing director Bill Pierce, was rejected as too costly, the sportsman’s plate is still an attention grabber featuring a moose and brook trout.
This plate has a unique funding split and is the only plate that maintains the $20 fee after the first plate is purchased. All other specialty plates cost $15 on renewal.
All of the money from the initial purchase of these plates in year one went to IF&W’s boating facilities fund, because the required start-up funding was taken from the department’s Lifetime License Investment Fund, an unusual transaction. In subsequent years, $14 of the first purchase of a set of the plates goes to the boating facilities fund, and the rest to the Specialty Plate Fund to cover start-up costs.
Renewals provide $18, split this way: 50 percent to fish hatcheries, 25 percent to landowner relations, 15 percent to boat launches, and 10 percent to nongame and endangered species. The remaining $2 goes to the Specialty Plate and Highway Funds.
The loon plate was unique when it was introduced. Today Maine offers eight specialty plates, plus a very attractive chickadee plate that doesn’t require an extra voluntary payment.
The agriculture plate raises money for Agriculture in the Classroom programs. The animal welfare plate supports the animal welfare auxiliary fund and companion animal sterilization fund.
A black bear plate provides scholarship money for University of Maine at Orono students. Another U. Maine plate directs scholarship money to students at the University of Southern Maine.
My friend, Representative Meredith Strange Burgess, successfully championed a new pink ribbon plate to support breast cancer research.
Lobstermen brought back that despised red lobster and somehow made it more appealing, providing funds for lobster research, education, and development.
A plate to support our troops raises money for financial aid to Maine National Guard and Reserve families.
Sales in FY 10 for these additional plates were: 14,030 agriculture, 5,659 animal welfare, 9,655 black bear, 6,250 USM, 12,041 breast cancer, and 24,841 lobster.
I have no idea what this says about our priorities.
But I can make a prediction: until Maine’s economy gets to a robust position, and the incomes of Mainers increase, the extra fees for specialty plates will come hard.
Other predictions: the loon plate has peaked and will continue to decline; the sportsman’s plate has the greatest potential with its huge targeted constituency (if IF&W starts marketing the plate effectively); other plates will continue to generate modest sales from their limited constituencies.
I have no explanation for why almost 25,000 people are paying extra to sport a red lobster on their license plates. If I had an extra $15 to spend, I’d buy a lobster roll.