The Bureau of Motor Vehicles should take a lesson on license plates from credit card companies, where the latest craze is cards on which consumers can place whatever picture they desire and voila! A one-of-a-kind credit keepsake.

It could be called the “CreateME” plate lab, maybe. Why not? The proliferation of new Maine license plates with increasingly varied designs and causes is arguably leading to this outcome, anyway.

The most recent are pet adoption plates, which are being circulated as a trial run. If 2,000 are pre-sold by Sept. 1, lawmakers will consider making them permanent, with proceeds funding the state’s Animal Welfare Program.

Pet adoption is the latest cause to seek special plates as a funding source – three new plates, in fact, went into circulation in April: the multi-colored agriculture education plate, a support-the-troops plate and a sportsman plate.

Revenue from these plates goes into special funds, like the new sportsman plate, which supports the “Endangered and Nongame Wildlife Fund,” the “Fish Hatchery Maintenance Fund” and the “Boat Launch Facilities Fund.”

Most plate-funded programs are worthy causes. There’s little argument with a “support troops” plate raising funds for Maine National Guard members, or a University of Maine plate that supports college scholarships.

But a growing number of plates presents a twofold problem: 1) what happens to programs once funding drops off, and; 2) the identification difficulties that arise from the increasing diversity of plate designs.

License plates have evolved from sheet metal tags into rolling displays of personal expression. Somewhere along the way, it was recognized that encouragement of varied plates could be a prime revenue source.

Yet not an endless one. Maine loon plates, for example, have seen registrations decline by 43 percent since their introduction in 1994, which is hurting programs that the plate revenue supports, including, ironically, the Endangered and Nongame Wildlife Fund, which the sportsman plate now also supports.

And the increasing number of plates is resulting in designs that are no longer easily recognizable as Maine registrations, which conflicts with the core purpose of having a license plate: vehicle identification.

The multi-hued agricultural plate is an example; so is the pet adoption plate. It has an attractive design, but the palette – white and yellow, with an orange cat, black dog, white rabbit and red horse – is far from the simple chickadee.

But we’re neither art critics nor hardhearted enough to think animal welfare, education or troops are unworthy of financial support from plates. Each cause is more than deserving.

Problems may loom, however, if the number of special license plates is allowed to grow unchecked.


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