INDIANAPOLIS – A debate over specialty-group license plates got no clarity Wednesday after a legislative committee listened to about two hours of testimony and decided not to make any recommendations.
Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, chairman of the panel, said he didnt think the group could reach consensus so it would be up to individual legislators if they want to offer a bill next session.
We were directed by the legislature to come and hear testimony, he said, noting the opportunity for the public to testify. That is why we spent money to be here.
When the issue came up at the end of the legislative session last year, it threatened to derail progress on other bills. As a result, leaders assigned it to a summer study committee, and a temporary moratorium was placed on the program.
Before it was halted, nonprofits could 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 plates – a number thats changed little in recent years.
The application process for a new specialty plate includes a petition of 500 people who would be interested in buying the plate, certification of nonprofit status, an explanation of the organizations statewide impact and information on how the money will be spent.
There are more than 100 specialty-group plates, with subjects as varied as colleges, military groups, sports and assorted health-related plates. The legislature used to be more involved in establishing individual plates, but now the work is largely handled by the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.
From 2007 through 2011, about 1.6 million specialty plates were sold. The BMV has distributed more than $41 million to organizations.
The BMV currently doesnt audit the program after the plates are issued other than monitoring to ensure a minimum sales level is met.
Soliday and other legislators have suggested the legislature needs to decide on individual plates again. Others think the state should get out of the nonprofit fundraising business altogether.
Whatever we need to do, we need to follow the standards and not deviate. When you deviate, thats when you get in trouble, said Sen. Tom Wyss, R-Fort Wayne. Its not something I want the legislature to take over.
The issue came to a head this year when several legislators became upset that the BMV issued a license plate to a group that supports gay youth. That specialty plate has since been administratively revoked by the BMV for an alleged contract violation.
Soliday said that controversy wasnt the reason he drafted a bill in 2012 to tighten down the program, though he acknowledged the debate and similar controversies in other states.
He believes there needs to be more standards and accountability on the groups that receive plates. He said that includes looking at how much money each organization spends on administration and where the money raised from the plate goes.
No one testified against the program.
Several groups, though, defended it as a legitimate role for government to play
Nancy Tibbett, executive director of Bicycle Indiana, said the state isnt actually doing the fundraising, just providing the administrative avenue. And its not costing state government anything as the fee covers all the expenses and more.
Soliday asked whether people deserve to know where their money is going, and she said people who buy the plates are supporters who believe in the organizations.
He also said repeatedly that he doesnt want certain images, such as a swastika, on a plate that also has the name Indiana – noting at least one court has ruled its a quasi-governmental endorsement.
There are a number of plates I question and object to, but if it went through the process and met the requirements, they are equally allowed to have a plate, Tibbett said.
Nationally, one state has as few as 15 specialty group plates, and Maryland has more than 800.
Elizabeth Murphy, general counsel for the BMV, said the agency would like to see more enforcement teeth in the program, such as a probationary period that would allow the agency to halt a plate more quickly if sales minimums arent met.
Rep. David Wolkins, R-Winona Lake, said he thinks the program is getting too broad and needs to be focused more, but he doesnt want to eliminate them entirely.