Michigan lawmakers consider license plate to support Sleeping Bear Dunes

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The proposed trail

The proposed trail

By Bridget Bush

Michigan lawmakers are considering yet another specialty license plate, this one to benefit the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Critics say the state has plenty of license plates —  60 is enough. But every other Great Lake state has significantly more than Michigan.

Legislators can’t resist the urge to tinker with specialty plates. Legislation is pending on a wide range of ideas on how to improve the fundraising system– from limiting the number to 10 to expanding them to commercial vehicles.

Sen. Darwin Booher, R–Evart, has proposed the bill that would use specialty plates to assist with the preservation of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Revenue generated from the plates would support the nonprofit organization, Preserve Historic Sleeping Bear.  This bill sits in the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, but is expected to see a vote before year’s end, Booher said.

Despite a national spotlight in 2011 as ABC’s Good Morning America’s “Most Beautiful Place in America,”  funding preservation efforts at Sleeping Bear Dunes is a constant struggle, Booher said. Every year, the national lakeshore draws more than 1 million visitors, creates 270 local jobs and contributes more than $145 million to the local economy, Booher said. He sees the new license plate as a “no-brainer” for Michigan.

Professional sports teams, such as the Red Wings, Detroit Lions and Detroit Pistons, want their own specialty plate too. Sen. Jim Stamas, R-Midland, introduced a bill that would include these organizations, along with the Michigan International Speedway, on the list of state-sponsored fundraising plates. Rep. Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, has proposed a similar bill in the House for the Michigan Snowsports Industries Association.

Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, seeks an even bigger expansion of fundraising plates as the introduced legislation would allow commercial vehicles to also purchase specialty license plates. Currently, only personal vehicles and motorcycles can do so.

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Hiking Sleeping Bear Dunes.

However, the Legislature’s divided opinion on regulating specialty license plates could mean the program comes to a standstill.

Compared to the rest of the Great Lakes states, Michigan offers significantly fewer options. Pennsylvania’s selection of fundraising plates outnumbers Michigan almost 6 to 1, with 353 plates to Michigan’s 60. New York has the secondmost options with 210 specialty plates, followed by Wisconsin 120, Ohio 104, Indiana 98, Illinois 91 and Minnesota 85.

It costs $15,000 to develop a new fundraising plate, provided by the sponsoring organization,  Booher said. But the Secretary of State estimates that most new specialty license initiatives actually cost the state $140,000 over a three-year average for implementing the design, said Fred Woodhams, a public information officer for the Secretary of State.

“Michigan’s old computer system – created way back in the 1960s – makes the process very cumbersome and extremely expensive,” Woodhams said. The coding is no longer taught in school, so the state relies on retirement-aged workers with specialized knowledge or has to spend a lot of resources training new hires on programming. The programming is also the reason Michigan law enforcement struggles to identify any more new plates.

Sleeping Bear Point Life-Saving Station at Sleeping Bear Dunes

Sleeping Bear Point Life-Saving Station at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Image: Eric Freedman

The late Rep. Peter Pettalia, R-Presque Isle, sponsored a bill, passed in the House and waiting for a vote in the Senate, that would limit the number of fundraising plates developed, produced or issued at any one time to 10. It would also revise the start-up fee to be an amount equal to that three-year average cost, as calculated annually by the Secretary of State.

The cost to the vehicle owner is a $25 donation and a $10 service fee — on top of the standard plate amount. The $25 donation is deposited into a fund associated with the specialty plate’s cause. If a specialty plate’s sales do not meet or exceed 2,000 plates in the first year and 500 in subsequent years, the design may be discontinued.

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