TALLAHASSEE -- The state might have reached a tipping point on the number of specialty license plates, as there has been a noticeable decline in motorists willing to pay the extra fees to let others know their college or sports preferences or that they support the troops, manatees or even trees.
But advocates of Florida’s specialty license plates say reducing auto registration fees toward pre-2009 levels could reinvigorate the program, which helps raise money for a wide range of causes.
Susan Goldstein, who lobbies for several associations with specialty plates, along with the Florida Association of Specialty License Plates, said a 2009 fee increase may explain the decrease in sales of the specialty tags.
"Before the fee increases we were raising about $40 million, after the increase it fell 17 percent to about $33 million," Goldstein told members of the House Transportation & Highway Safety Subcommittee this week as they were asked to ponder the need to make changes to the program.
According to the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, the $15 to $25 fee on specialty tags generates about $30 million a year, with about $8.6 million going to state revenue for processing fees and the rest divided among different sponsor organizations.
A proposal (SB 156) by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has already started to advance in the Legislature to partially roll back the 2009 registration fee increases, which were enacted to close a budget shortfall. The bill would provide an average $12 savings for each vehicle registration.
A change to the specialty tag fee is not addressed in Negron’s proposal, which is expected to collectively save motorists $182 million during the next budget year, growing to $239 million the following year and $244 million a year later.
"We should do everything we can to foster those continued donations that people want to give to the state of Florida," Goldstein said.
Still, the program could be in for some downsizing.
Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles Deputy Director Stephen Fielder told the House subcommittee that the market for specialty plates has become saturated.
The state sold and renewed 1.34 million specialty tags last year, nearly 26,000 fewer than in 2011 and a noticeable decline from the 1.62 million purchased in 2009.
Of the 120 designs now on the road, nearly half have attracted fewer than 5,000 buyers, with 17 under 1,000 sales. New College of Florida and 13 private colleges are among the lowest sellers.
The top sellers continue to be — in order — the University of Florida, Florida State University, Helping Sea Turtles Survive, and Protect Wild Dolphins.
While there are 18 million vehicles on the road, Fielder noted that "the market base is not growing."
"When I had 30 plates, I had 30 organizations competing for 1 million (motorists)," Fielder continued. "I now have 120 plates competing for 1 million customers."
Many of the once top-selling plates, such the first one created in 1986 to honor the space shuttle Challenger and modified in 2005 to include the shuttle Columbia, have declined in popularity over the years as customers order different designs, Fielder said.
In 2008, 80,797 Protect Wild Dolphins plates were sold, second only to the UF tag. That was down to 56,200 last year, putting the dolphins plate fourth in sales. The Protect the Panther plate, third in sales in 2008 with 80,065 tags on the road, was fifth in 2011 with 53,497 sales.
UF had 97,348 buyers last year, down from 113,562 in 2008. Florida State University has moved into second with 63,208 tags on the road, which is down from when the school had 75,707 proud alumni, students and supporters in 2008.
The Legislature added four new plates to the program during the 2013 session, and proposals have been introduced for two additional specialty tags in 2014.
The 2014 proposals are to create the Fallen Law Enforcement Officers tag (SB 132) and "Sun, Sea, and Smiles" tag (SB 244), which would raise money for a number of Florida based charities with Caribbean ties.
Both proposed plates failed to pass during the 2013 session.
Of the plates that did get through during the 2013 session, none have reached the required 1,000 pre-sale mark to go into production.
The closest is the Freemasonry tag, which became available Oct. 1. The Freemasonry plate had 930 pre-orders as of Nov. 6, according to the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
Meanwhile, there were 361 sold for Lauren’s Kids, 16 for the American Legion, and 26 for Big Brothers Big Sisters. Pre-sales for those tags began July 1.