Not-for-profits urge lawmakers not to kill plates

September 5, 2012

Organizers from not-for-profit groups urged Indiana lawmakers Wednesday not to kill the sales of specialty license plates that raise some of their funding.

A legislative study committee heard about an hour of testimony from representatives of organizations as diverse as the Indianapolis Zoo, Bicycle Indiana and the Patriot Guard.

The proliferation of plates expressing support for everything from autism research to Abraham Lincoln became an issue last year when conservative lawmakers tried to eliminate a specialty plate for a gay youth group. Their push failed, but the Bureau of Motor Vehicles later stripped plate privileges from the Indiana Youth Group and two other organizations, saying they wrongly traded low-digit plates for contributions. The youth group maintains the practice is common.

No one from the group that provides support for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teenagers who are struggling with their identities testified during Wednesday's hearing at the Statehouse. The group's director was on vacation and didn't return a phone call seeking comment.

Anne Teigen, a policy analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures who spoke to the committee via video from Denver, said gay rights, racism, abortion and other contentious issues had surfaced over specialty plates in other states and that several states were reconsidering offering plates at all or setting stricter qualifications.

"Many states are wrestling with the issue, and there is a state of flux out there," said committee Chairman Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso.

Former state legislator and treasurer Joyce Brinkman urged lawmakers to issue the plates only to not-for-profits whose activities augment state services and to set up a system to regularly audit the groups.

While some lawmakers have suggested that the Legislature should approve which groups receive recognition plates, Gary Democratic Sen. Earline Rogers questioned that.

"I'm not sure that's something the Legislature should be doing, because sometimes politics comes in," she said.

Not-for-profit group leaders who testified Wednesday said the plate program was a legitimate public-private partnership and helps the organizations provide needed services that otherwise would have to be paid for by the state.

Motorists pay an additional $40 for the special plates, with $25 going the organization and $15 to the BMV. About 459,000 such plates are currently on vehicles — a number that has been consistent for several years, even as 39 new plates have been approved in the last six years.

"From the tax revenue standpoint, the specialty plate program is a win-win-win for the state of Indiana," said Charles Hyde, director of membership for the Indianapolis Zoo.

But most of the organizers said they would be receptive to tighter regulations, which committee members generally favored.

Soliday said Wednesday's hearing would likely be the only one before the panel reports to the Legislature, which is expected to take up the issue in January.


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