Vanity license plates a driving force for nonprofits

OLYMPIA — State lawmakers may bemoan a proliferation of specialty license plates but they continue to be a popular way for car owners to support their favorite causes.

Residents shell out millions of dollars each year on plates with the money spent on such things as services for children, veterans and law enforcement families, college scholarships and wildlife protection, bike safety and music education programs.

Sponsors of 17 plate designs launched since 2004 collected roughly $1.9 million between July 2010 and December 2011 from sales, according to the draft of a Department of Licensing report going to lawmakers next week.

“I think they’re working,” said agency spokesman Brad Benfield. “They’re not a bonanza for anybody. A lot of them raise $100,000 to $200,000 and that’s nothing to sneeze at.”

Sales of the Share the Road plate provided $104,902 to the Bicycle Alliance of Washington in the 2011 calendar year, according to the report.

“It is a critical and stable funding source,” said Executive Director Barb Chamberlain, adding the amount represented about 10 percent of the organization’s annual budget.

Most of the money went into conducting road safety education programs throughout the state while about a quarter went to fundraising for the group.

Plates also serve as a “moving billboard” for their driver education efforts, she said.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife generated close to $500,000 in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2011, from sales of the wildlife-themed plates it sponsors, according to the draft report.

Those driving around with a deer, elk, bear, eagle or orca on their license plates are helping fund protection of wildlife and maintaining trails as well as capturing and monitoring wolves and big game.

“Any funding of this sort is essential to rounding out the work that we do,” said Eric Gardner, the agency’s wildlife diversity division manager.

In the same fiscal year, the state Department of Veteran Affairs reported sales of its Armed Forces Collection — which offer plates for each branch of the military — netted $370,211 for an array of services for soldiers and their families.

Other tallies in the report include:

•$267,813 for the Behind the Badge Foundation from sales of the Law Enforcement Memorial plate. The money aids families of officers killed or seriously injured in the line of duty;

$113,355 for the Washington State Council of Fire Fighters Benevolent Fund, which aids professional firefighters and their families;

$105,515 for the Lighthouse Environmental Programs, an organization focused on restoration and preservation of lighthouses;

$36,899 for scholarships through the Gonzaga University Alumni Association.

The report, which will go to the Joint Transportation Committee of the Legislature Wednesday, is required under a 2003 law which gave lawmakers a direct hand in approving new specialty plates.

But the report only tells part of the story because it does not include plates issued before the law took effect. Among those are the most popular specialty plates on the road — those for the state’s six public four-year universities. Those plates have been generating money for scholarship funds since the mid-’90s.

For some it’s a big deal.

Take Washington State University. There were 3,454 WSU plates sold and 18,199 renewed between July 1, 2011 and June 30, 2012, according to Department of Licensing records. That alone brought in more than $500,000 for scholarships.

The report also excludes other specialty plates created before 2003, including some that are free and reserved for qualified recipients such as disabled drivers, survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack and those awarded a Purple Heart or Medal of Honor.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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