By Paul T. Choate
July 2, 2012. Almost exactly one year ago House Bill 289 was signed into law on June 30, 2011, effectively phasing out full-color specialty license tags, such as the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation (BRPF) tag and others, beginning July 1, 2015. Now, a year later, there is still a push to overturn this law.
Originally filed on March 9, 2011, by Rep. Mitch Gillespie, R-McDowell, along with several co-sponsors, the bill made a lengthy trip through the State Senate and House of Representatives, being amended several times before finally becoming law in June of last year. The law sparked controversy due to the amount of money several of the full-color specialty license tags brought in for the organizations they represented.
“The specialty license tag program for us represents an enormous funding opportunity to provide those programs and services for the Parkway and the visitors to the Parkway that we could not otherwise do,” said Carolyn Ward, CEO of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation. “That plate program allows us to give upwards of $600,000 to $700,000 a year to the Blue Ridge Parkway. So if we lost that specialty license program it would represent a substantial cut in the amount of programs and services that we can provide.”
The BRPF tag costs $30 more than a standard N.C. license tag. According to Ward, $20 of that goes directly to the foundation, with the remaining $10 going to support visitor centers, tourism advertising, highway beautification and assistance for disabled travelers, among other projects.
According to the BRPF, “In Western N.C., full-color plate revenues for the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation and Friends of the Great Smoky Mountains alone have pumped more than $6 million into the promotion and improvements of these destinations – and helped attract countless visitors and their tourist dollars to the region.”
Additionally, more than 75,000 North Carolinians purchase full-color tags every year and the tags raise approximately $750,000 annually.
According to the law, specialty tags will still be available, just not in full-color. There will be a small spot designated on the new specialty tags after July 1, 2015, that will display a unique logo or insignia for each specialty tag (similar to North Carolina collegiate specialty tags). If the law phasing out the tags stays in place, the burden of cost to replace the specialized tags with new ones in “standardized formats” will fall on the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV).
Some groups with full-color specialty tags have redesigned their tags to better meet visibility requirements of law enforcement and toll-camera operators (see the BRPF’s new design, left). Ward said, however, that even before incorporating the white box in, “It exceeded federal standards. It had been approved by the State of North Carolina, the highway patrol, and the Department of Transportation and the DMV. It had been approved twice already.”
Ward said the main reason why House Bill 289 was able to pass into law was because no study had been done on the interpretability of the tags. A study conducted by the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) concluded that any issues with visibility could be solved by adding the white box behind the license number.
“The DOT and DMV recommended that they continue the specialty license plate program and that it met all the safety and readability standards – the study concluded that,” said Ward.
Those who object to the law phasing out full-color specialty tags had a recent glimpse of hope. Rep. Gillespie, who originally sponsored House Bill 289, along with Rep. Phillip Frye, R-Mitchell, filed House Bill 1035 in May of this year. House Bill 1035 looks to authorize continued issuance of full-color specialty license plates.
House Bill 1035 passed in the House 107 aye, 0 no, 5 no votes and 8 absent on June 7 and was sent to the Senate. After passing the first reading in the Senate it was referred to the Finance Committee on June 11 and has not been put on any further calendars since.
“It got pulled. It will not be introduced,” said Ward. “That bill will not see the light of day. And that’s from Sen. [Tom] Apodaca [Senate Finance Committee vice chairman] and Sen. [Bob] Rucho [Senate Finance Committee co-chair].”
Ward said she has trouble understanding why certain legislators want to phase out the full-color specialty tags. “Every time there was a stated reason, whenever I tried to follow that source through, it never really bared out,” she said.
Despite House Bill 1035 looking as though it may not “see the light of day” again, Ward said she plans to continue to fight for the tags.
“I believe we’ll go back when session comes back in next year and unfortunately we’ll have to start all over again, and I believe that some people have indeed shown their hand so to speak,” said Ward. “The thing that I was told by the senators was that they were waiting for the study … When the study came out and then they went against it I think that really did show what perhaps some agendas were.”
Representatives Mitch Gillespie and Phillip Frye did not return phone calls today as of press time.
For more information about House Bill 1035, click here.
For more information about specialized tags, click here.
For more information about the BRPF, visit brpfoundation.org.