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Ask the Times: What's the deal with personalized license plates?

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I was at the state revenue office in Springdale getting a driver-license renewal. I saw a framed poster on the wall promoting the sale of the "Choose Life" license plate. There was only one other such poster on the wall in the entire place, one promoting the sale of so-called wildlife plates that benefit the Game and Fish Commission and the hunting industry. That one I can understand, seeing as Game and Fish is a state agency. The "Choose Life" poster says that it's a way to "support adoption," but it doesn't say where the money goes. Presumably it's not funding a state agency. It seems to me this is improper endorsement of a private charity — a politically controversial one, at that — by a state agency. What about it?

Whether it's improper or not is debatable. It is not unique, according to the state Department of Finance and Administration. DFA authorizes about 100 of these "specialty" license plates, which are used as fund-raisers by various public and private groups. The sponsoring groups provide the posters that are sometimes displayed on revenue office walls, according to Roger Duren, administrator of the state office of motor vehicles. "We try to accommodate people," Duren said. "We'll put a poster up for everybody that requests one if we have room."

Arkansas Right to Life Inc., a private group, requested a poster for its "Choose Life" plate. Would a poster for a "pro-choice" license plate be displayed? Yes, if there were such a plate, Duren said. He said that no "pro-choice" group had applied for a specialty plate, at least not since 2005, when the legislature gave DFA authority over specialty license plates. Before that, the legislature itself decided who could have a plate.

Applicants for a specialty plate must meet DFA standards for design and content — profanity is forbidden, for example — and post a certain amount of money or a certain number of signatures of potential buyers, or both. "We reserve the right to make the final approval," Duren said. Some specialty plates are available only to designated people. The "Ex-Prisoner of War" license plate, for example, is available only to Arkansas residents who were prisoners of war while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces, and to the spouses of POWs. Only members of the "Most Worshipful Grand Lodge Community Outreach Inc." can get a "Freemason" license plate. On the other hand, any motor vehicle owner is eligible for a "Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer" plate, or a "University of Arkansas" plate with a Razorback on it.

Typically, a specialty plate costs $25 in addition to the normal motor vehicle registration fee, and the proceeds go to the sponsor of the plate. In the case of colleges and universities, the DFA requires that 85 percent of the proceeds be used for academic or need-based scholarships. The other 15 percent can be used either for scholarships or promotion of the plates.

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