Messages on the move — a closer look


One of the side effects of this winter flows from the snail’s pace of traffic. There is ample opportunity to observe, then reflect upon, the diversity of license places that bear the “Minnesota” label.  

For the first time I have paid serious heed to optional plates purchased at a premium and proudly sported by Minnesota drivers with a cause or a condition. A recent update from the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library announced a new publication from the Minnesota House of Representatives Research Department that puts the parade of license plates in context. Legislative Analyst Matt Burress tells us all we could ever have wanted to know about special license plates.

In his introduction Burress underscores that his overview and discussion will focus on “donation plates” that “provide funding for a specific program or organization from a contribution that is provided in addition to a typical plate fee.” His offer of more information about license places — financing, costs and revenues, policy questions in creating a new special plate and general trends in other states compelled me to read on, where I learned more than I could have imagined about what goes on behind the bureaucracy that is on the surface as mundane as it is mandatory.

First, there are the types of plates. Burress identifies the following classes:

  • Collector plates for older vehicles;
  • Donation plates that require an additional contribution for a specific group or program;
  • Organization affiliation plates reflecting membership in a particular group;
  • Personalized plates bearing a unique sequence of numbers and letters set by the person requesting the plate;
  • Veteran and military plates representing separate military conflicts and veteran statuses; and
  • Other special plates for a particular status or type of vehicle.

When I was young we used to covet and collect spottings of license plates from other states.  In this mobile world that’s passé. It seems to me that today’s challenge should be for the passenger to collect one tag from each of these categories. The eagle-eye license plate identifier (EELPI) ought to win, if only the unstinting respect for his/her visual acumen and rapid reflexes. The challenge is there — of the 1.06 million Minnesota plates issued in 2010 only 8 percent fall in the “special plate” category. Though the highest number of special plates promoted the critical habitat, several special plates adorn fewer than 500 vehicles.

Burress is meticulous in reporting on the fiscal impact of license purchases. “In fiscal year 2010 for all plates combined, total revenue after costs amounted to a little under $475,000.  Regular passenger plates yielded a net cost of $674,000 and special plates yielded $967,000 in revenue. Among special plates, personalized plates were the main revenue generator at about $731,000 in revenue.”

Most drivers and those who keep on eye on the traffic flow recognize three types of plates — regular passenger plates, the default plate for cars, vans, SUVs and other passenger vehicles.  Special plates contain some type of nonstandard design and can be obtained by request for passenger cars; in some cases a special plate is available for motorcycles, pickups or recreational vehicles. Other vehicle plates are most often issued for specific types of vehicles (motorcycles, trucks, farm vehicles, buses, RVs or other special status, e.g. dealers, ownership by a tax-exempt entity). Again there is a host of classes for other vehicle plates.

The category of special plates is complicated, to say the least. These optional plates carry a different inscription, emblem, color scheme or background from regular plates. In most cases,  purchase of the plates supports or expresses a special interest. Examples noted by Burress include veterans plates, firefighters, amateur radio buffs, classic cars, persons with disabilities and a number of colleges. Many carry a requirement for purchase, e.g. past military service. Burress reports that currently there are nearly 50 distinct special plates plus additional emblems and designs; he categorizes these as follows: collector, donation, organization/group affiliation, personalized, veterans and military, and other special plates that reflect an applicant’s special status, e.g disability plates, limos, commuter vans and plates for impounded vehicles.

Most license plates carry a plate fee, generally set to cover the overall costs of program administration. The fee for special plates is typically higher than for regular plates. It’s interesting to note that, whereas there is a net cost of approximately $674,000 for regular plates, special plates, considered in toto, generate more than enough revenue ($967,000) to garner considerable profit to the state.

Any organization or institution — college, vets, public cause or other — with the thought of introducing a special plate will do well to consult Burress’ extensive information about existing plates and pending proposals. The process is not simple but the report spells it out in careful detail so that the organization has clear guidelines and options.

This research document, prepared by the Research Department at the House of Representatives, posted on the website of the Legislative Reference Library, is a model of how the system should work — sound research well presented and widely shared by the State of Minnesota. It offers an excellent example of access to government information, a right that Minnesotans need to recognize, appreciate and support as the Legislature convenes to grapple with the many facets of access.

One consequence of the report — possibly unanticipated — is a sort of rule book for young passengers for whom the long ride in confined quarters calls for a lively diversion, possibly a chance to learn something about the array of licensing options and the conditions and causes they reflect. Parker Brothers take note!