State Government and BMV and Government & Economic Development and Philanthropy

Colts, God license plates slice into sales of charity tags

April 7, 2008

Sales of specialty license plates benefiting colleges, not-for-profits and other Indiana organizations fell by nearly a third last year after the state unveiled "In God We Trust" tags as a free alternative to the lime-green pastoral fields plates reviled by many motorists.

Also cannibalizing sales was the meteoric growth of the Indianapolis Colts plate--up 131 percent in 2007 to become the fourth-most-popular specialty tag, a review of Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles records shows.

"That's what a Super Bowl win will do for you," said Maureen Manier of Riley Children's Foundation, which saw its plate sales fall 11 percent last year to 12,460, generating $311,500 for Indianapolis' Riley Hospital for Children. That was $37,600 less than the previous year.

The hospital still has a strong plate renewal rate, though, and Manier chalks up the 2007 decrease to greater overall competition.

"It's kind of diffusing, or diluting the market, if you will," she said.

Indiana added a half-dozen specialty plates in 2007, not including the standard "In God We Trust" tag. All told, about 5.5 percent of the state's 6.5 million registered vehicles carry one of the 70 so-called "special group recognition" plates.

Sponsoring organizations receive funds from plate sales--as does the BMV, which charges a $15 administrative fee for most specialty tags. Plate costs vary, from $10 for the American Legion plate to $25 for most college and university plates.

But the $643,380 raised last year from sales of the "Colts" plates didn't benefit education, firefighters or children--it went to the Indiana Stadium and Convention Building Authority to help pay for the $700 million Lucas Oil Stadium and $275 million Indiana Convention Center expansion.

Indirectly, the extra $20 Colts fans pay for the blue and white plates introduced in 2006 benefits team owner Jim Irsay, who got a new stadium with more corporate suites and other revenue-generating accoutrements after threatening to move the team to a more lucrative market.

Taxpayers are footing the bulk of the bill through a 1-percent restaurant tax in the nine-county central Indiana area and a number of new taxes in Marion County paid for by those who rent a car and check into a hotel room

Lagging license plate sales sacked plans by the Indiana School Counselors Association to fund as many counselor positions at Indiana elementary schools. Over the last several years, the group has provided grants to create counseling positions, with schools agreeing to pick up the tab in future years.

"It's a really disturbing trend for us," said Charlene Alexander, president of the association and associate professor of psychology and counseling at Ball State University.

The association receives $6.25 from every "Education" plate sold; school corporations and other public education foundations get the rest. But sales of education plates dropped 56 percent last year, generating $312,350.

"In the past two years, we've noticed this [downward] trend," Alexander added.

Overall sales down

Sales of all specialty plates last year fell 31 percent to 355,597, from 514,927 in 2006, according to data provided by BMV. That generated nearly $8 million for plate sponsors--down from $10.8 million in 2006.

Agency officials couldn't immediately explain the sharp decline, though they suspect a 2006 conversion of the BMV's computer system may have inflated numbers that year.

Speciality plate sales in previous years showed a steady upward trend, said Deputy BMV Commissioner Dollyne Pettigill Sherman.

"We are skeptical of the [2006] totals," she said. "There could be some redundancies in the numbers. We don't know."

The drop cost the BMV more than $2 million in fee revenue, although agency officials said the impact was minimal since the loss was offset by factors such as an overall rise in total plate sales and additional operating efficiencies.

Curiously, the decline in specialty-plate sales came despite an increase in the number of available plates--including "Support Our Troops," introduced last year and quickly rising to seventh-best-seller.

The 19,082 troops plates sold generated more than $381,000 for a military family assistance fund. The plates apparently struck a nerve of those who wanted to help military families with financial struggles--and possibly poke a finger in the eye of anti-war activists.

"It gave the general public an opportunity to do something significant," said Tom Applegate, director of the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs, which administers the fund.

That's the idea behind giving a portion of specialty-plate revenue to charitable organizations. So why did overall sales fall?

The primary reason appears to be the "In God We Trust" plates, unveiled as an alternative to the standard green plate introduced in 2003 to many motorists' dismay.

The farm field image looked faded--as if plates had baked under the South Florida sun for years. Others complained that the "Crossroads of America" slogan was dropped for a crass display of the state's Web address.

Dislike for the green plates helped stoke sales of the more expensive specialty tags, observers said.

"When the really ugly plate came out, that drove people to those other [specialty] plates," said Bryan Orander, founder and president of Charitable Advisors and editor and publisher of Not-for-Profit News. "There was an artificial spike" in specialty tag sales.

Monica Woods, director for alumni relations at the University of Indianapolis, agrees.

"A lot of people said, 'I want anything but that'," she said.

State Rep. Woody Burton, R-Greenfield, who authored the bill that created the "In God We Trust" plate, said he figures it displaced many of the green plates but doesn't know quite how many.

One thing is sure: The new plate likely displaced some specialty plates. More than 1.6 million "IGWT" plates were distributed last year--more than three times that of all specialty tags combined, according to BMV records.

Motorists who wanted a plate conveying a special message may indeed have chosen "IGWT" over a specialty plate, said Dennis Rosebrough, BMV spokesman. Especially since they didn't cost anything extra.

"We sold more than 1-1/2 million ['IGWT' plates] last year. You can't ignore the impact," he said.

Burton noted that the plate came out around the time the Indiana Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the Indiana General Assembly to ban explicitly Christian references in prayers held in the Legislature. U.S. District Judge David Hamilton ruled that lawmakers must refrain from using the name of Christ. Many Christians were outraged and wanted to show it.

"I got hundreds of e-mails and letters from people thanking me for that [license plate]," Burton said.

His sense is that many people who chose "IGWT" plates did so to convey a message rather than as an alternative to the standard green plates. However, in media reports last year, some motorists said BMV workers merely handed out the new plates as if they had replaced the standard green tags.

Whatever the reason, it's clear many groups that benefit from plate revenue are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain the same level of sales.

"We have such strong competition these days," said Clara Anderson, board president of the Indiana Kids First Trust Fund, which receives funds from "Kids First" license plates.

Last year, the group collected $769,225 in plate funds, which the trust distributes to community organizations such as Prevent Child Abuse Indiana for programs. "Kids First" plate sales fell 57 percent in 2007, bumping the plate from second-most-popular to No. 5--and reducing the trust fund's revenue $1.5 million according to BMV data.

Burton acknowledged that "IGWT" plates had an effect on specialty plate sales, but, "I don't think it's the effect," he said.

"There's just a large group of organizations now vying for that money" from plate sales, he added. "That's gotten to be very competitive."

Too much competition?

The BMV said it is aware of the growing competition.

Motorists can now choose from more than 70 tags, including the standard plates. Last year, the agency picked only one of 16 proposed new specialty plates proposed by organizations--one benefiting Special Olympics--to add to the offerings this year.

The BMV says the number of new special group recognition plates should be limited where growth makes proper identification for police more difficult, "dilutes the distinction of existing plates by addressing the same constituencies," or opens the door to numerous similar organizations.

"The BMV has taken a position we have to be careful about the proliferation of plates," said Dollyne Pettingill Sherman, deputy commissioner of the BMV. "Every time a new plate comes on board, it has the potential to take sales away from other plates."

So what's an organization to do when motorists have so choices?

Improve awareness of its plate, for one. Riley advertises the plates on its Web site, in its publications, and even in the hospital. It has fliers at license branches. And now it has a motorcycle version of the Riley plate.

At the University of Indianapolis, where sales of its specialty plates last year fell to 1,172 from 1,985 in 2006, officials have eliminated a requirement that buyers first send in an authorization form.

Currently, about 25 organizations require preauthorization, an additional step that could dissuade some potential supporters.

UIndy expects to see a 20-percent rise in sales this year, Woods said, thanks to strong loyalty among its small student and alumni

"We've never really thought of ourselves in competition with the Colts plate," she said.

But organizations with specialty plates soon could face even more competition--this time from a dead U.S. president. Starting this year, the BMV is offering another no-cost option: a standard plate with Abraham Lincoln's mug and the words "Lincoln's Boyhood Home."

Honest Abe did spend 14 of his formative years in Indiana. And putting him on the trunk lid is an ideal way to rub that fact in the face of Illinois and Kentucky residents who also claim the ex-president.

In the meantime, organizations with specialty plates might also hope the replacement for the green version--dark blue with the Indiana torch ablaze--gets old fast.

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