You choose, we deliver
If you are interested in this story, you might be interested in others from The Journal Gazette. Go to and pick the subjects you care most about. We'll deliver your customized daily news report at 3 a.m. Fort Wayne time, right to your email.

BMV handing plate debate to legislature

– As lawmakers prepare to delve into the details of the expanding specialty group license plate program, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles is trying to stay out of the policy discussion.

“It’s really not my place to say. There are arguments every way,” BMV Commissioner R. Scott Waddell said. “I think it’s definitely a good idea to review the program. The legislature needs to tell us what they believe the program should be.”

But it’s pretty easy to tell where Waddell falls on the matter – just look at his license plate.

He has a No. 12 Indiana State Police plate. His wife sports a like-numbered In God We Trust plate. His son has a No. 12 Colts plate. And his daughter recently changed to a Butler University plate (alas, No. 12 was already taken.)

“I believe it’s a good program for the organizations involved and it benefits the state,” Waddell said.

A summer study committee of lawmakers will review the program though no schedule has been established. Options on the table are wide.

“Should everyone get a plate with no responsibility at all? We can do that. All we have to do is print them,” Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, said. “On the other end of the perspective is if we are using the state’s name to advertise do we have the responsibility to make sure these groups are operating legally and ethically, and the dollars are being spent on worthwhile causes?

“Those are the extremes of the bell curve.”

The answer is likely somewhere in between, said Sen. Jim Merritt, R-Indianapolis – who has taken an interest in the program.

“There are so many good causes that it would be a political firestorm to get rid of all the plates,” he said. “I just believe we need a complete airing of the program. My concerns are about the system as a whole. Most if not all of these groups have honorable intentions. I want tighter rules for everyone.”

Groups can now apply for a special plate for $40. Of that, $25 goes back to the organization and $15 stays with the BMV.

About 459,000 Hoosiers have specialty group plates on their vehicles – a number that has hovered in the same area for several years.

The application process includes a petition of 500 people who would be interested in buying the plate, certification of non-profit status and an explanation of the organization’s statewide impact.

There are more than 100 specialty group plates, ranging from colleges and military groups to sports and various health-related plates.

The legislature used to be more involved in establishing individual plates. The BMV has approved 68 since 1991, according to data from the agency. Thirty-nine of those came in the last six years.

From 2007 through 2011, about 1.6 million specialty group plates were sold and the BMV has distributed more than $41 million to organizations.

IPFW received a plate in 2007 and initially did not charge the extra $25 for fundraising, instead using it strictly to raise the profile of the college.

Kimberly Wagner, director of alumni relations for IPFW, said two years ago that changed and now the university is using the money to endow a scholarship for children of alumni.

In 2011, 343 IPFW plates were sold and the university raised about $5,000 for the scholarship and used the rest for alumni programming.

“We are doing everything right so I hope they wouldn’t take our plate away,” she said. “It is a really helpful fundraising tool so (the whole discussion) is a little scary. If lawmakers have questions we are more than happy to talk to them about our program.”

Proposals at the end of the 2012 legislative session contemplated starting the program over again with the legislature approving all plates and the BMV handling only the application process.

Several lawmakers apparently grumbled that the BMV approves too many plates, especially since being sued in 2009 after denying a plate for a gay youth group.

But the BMV has rejected a number of plates, including one for a major Catholic high school in Indianapolis last year. In 2010, it denied six plates; in 2009 it denied nine plates. In other years it has often denied at least a handful.

Some of those groups have come back in later years and improved their application to get approval. For instance, the Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital and the Indianapolis Zoological Society used zip codes of patients and members to show statewide impact.

One group that was denied twice was the AAA Hoosier Motor Club, which hasn’t tried again.

Greg Seiter – public affairs manager for AAA – said the group initially proposed a plate to draw attention to the dangers of children playing near or crossing the street. The second attempt was aimed at encouraging Hoosiers to slow down and move over for public safety vehicles.

“I think the BMV felt there were already too many specialty plates out there and this was a little too specific. I think they were trying to get a stronger hold on the plates,” he said. “There is some due consideration to limiting them. There has to be a stopping point otherwise every group out there would want them.”

Seiter noted that 800 citizens had signed the required petition for the plate and said “we will keep it in the back of our mind for the future.”

Soliday – who is pushing to reduce the size of the program through added accountability and requirements – said he doesn’t blame the BMV for the situation.

“They operate under the rules and they are only as good as the rules they have,” he said. “I think they have done their job. But I think we might be able to give them more tools.”

The BMV has also taken a few plates away over time, such as a Girl Scout plate that did not sell enough. Recently the BMV suspended three groups’ plates for selling low-digit plates for extra donations.

Generally groups are required to sell 2,000 plates within four years.

One way other states limit the number of plates is to pre-sell them; in Indiana those signing the petition aren’t required to buy them.

Overall, Waddell said there is a limited number of Hoosiers willing to pay the extra cost of having a specialty plate. That pool of people doesn’t grow so when additional plates are added it is just “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

He noted that specialty plates are now made on demand – and cost only about $6 for the BMV to make. The elimination of set-up costs means volume isn’t required to make each plate self-sustaining.

Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, repeatedly brought up public safety concerns involving the more than 100 plates. But it seems most of those issues have been alleviated.

Indiana State Police Capt. Dave Bursten said there were concerns a few years ago with the readability of the plates.

Specifically, he said, the specialty group plates included two small letters stacked on top of each other, which made it hard for police to read and identify. The old system also could use the same plate number, for instance, for a truck plate and a Colts plate.

“Now every plate has its own number regardless of the type of plate,” Bursten said. “Uniformity and readability were our concerns. Otherwise this is a policy decision for the BMV and the legislature.”

Merritt said there is some concern about plates that carry certain moral debates, and whether some think the state advocates or endorses a group because it’s on the plate.

The moral concerns have been at the heart of criticism against the BMV for approving the Indiana Youth Group plate, an organization that aids gay youth.

And Soliday supports more financial data and organizational information being provided by the groups, as well as a prohibition against political contributions.

Fort Wayne resident Jim Sack thinks legislators might be overthinking the program.

“The plates are a colorful way of expressing the diversity of our state, and the pride many of us have in our institutions. Additionally, they offer good marketing value and provide a bit of income for the state and for the organization displayed on the plate. It seems a win-win in so many ways,” he said. “The message, however, should be positive, not divisive.”