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Motorists show loyalties through specialty license plates


University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University special license plates continued to be among the hottest sellers offered by the Oklahoma Tax Commission last year, with the OU tags slightly more popular than the OSU ones.

OU fans shouldn't feel too smug.

The sale of OU special license plates declined 22 percent from 2013 to 2017, while the sale of OSU special plates increased more than 25 percent.

If the trend continues, the number of OSU special plates on the road could outnumber the number of OU plates within a year.

Sooner fans bought 3,938 OU special license plates last year, compared to 3,565 OSU license plates purchased by Cowboy supporters, Oklahoma Tax Commission records show.

But there were 1,124 fewer OU special license plates sold in 2017 than there were four years earlier. The number of OSU special license plates sold increased by 727 during that same time period.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma City Thunder special license plates outsold both of Oklahoma's flagship universities. There were 5,837 Thunder plates sold in 2017. The Thunder plates cost only about half the price of the university ones.

The Oklahoma Tax Commission offers state drivers more than 200 special license plate options that can be purchased to show support for various organizations and causes.

The nearly $1.8 million raised from special license plate registrations last year was a tiny portion of the $757.2 million Oklahoma raised from a wide variety of motor vehicle registrations and fees.

Both traditional license plates and special plates are manufactured by state prison inmates.

In most cases, motorists who choose to buy special plates must buy regular license plates, as well, said Paula Ross, spokeswoman for the Tax Commission. The special plates are placed on the rear of the vehicles while the regular license plates are kept inside vehicles to show law enforcement officers, if necessary.

People who qualify for a handful of special license plates are exempt from the requirement that they purchase regular license plates. These include Medal of Honor recipients, who pay no fee; disabled veterans, who pay $5 for their specialty tags; and ex-POWs, gold star parents, gold star spouses, gold star survivors and unmarried widows of widowers of service members killed in action, who pay $19 for their special tags.

With many of the state's special license plates, a portion of the money raised goes to support the organizations or causes promoted on the license plates.

The college and university license plates work that way.

Customers pay $35 for their initial special plate and $20 goes to the higher education institution designated on the license plate. Of the remaining money, $3 goes to the Adaptive Grant Program for Oklahomans with Mental Retardation Revolving Fund. The rest goes for things like postage fees, tax commission administrative costs and for distribution, along with other motor vehicle registration revenue. An extra $4 postage fee is charged if the tags have to be mailed. Renewal tags are $2.50 cheaper.

The Boy Scouts of America, Child Abuse Prevention Fund, Route 66 Museum in Clinton, Oklahoma Historical Society and Oklahoma Safe Kids Association are among a large group of other organizations that raise funds from the sale of special license plates.

Special license plates aren't always used as fundraisers.

In some cases, they are simply offered as a way of showing support for a cause or group like the Oklahoma City Thunder or NAACP. In other cases, a person must be a member of a particular organization like the Jaycees or Kiwanis or meet other special criteria to obtain their special tags.

Tags that aren't used as fundraisers are cheaper — often $15 for the initial tags — although prices of some tags differ from others. For example, motorists who qualify as Oklahoma City bombing victims and survivors can purchase special plates for $12.

Most military tags are also $12, which includes a $4 mailing fee. There are a few exceptions, such as tags for Purple Heart recipients. Those plates are free, but there is a $4 mailing fee.

Personalized license plates are the most popular type of special license plate sold by the Tax Commission. There were 39,126 of those sold for automobiles and 2,151 sold for motorcycles last year.

By paying $24 in addition to the normal registration fee, a person gets to choose their own combination of letters and numbers. These are the tags motorists see on the roads that often contain clever messages like DUCTT8P, GOLFBUM or RTISTIC.

For those who might consider pushing the boundaries of good taste, it's worth mentioning that the Tax Commission maintains an evolving list of more than 2,300 letter and number combinations that have been banned either because they are considered offensive or because they have been reserved for special use.

Many Oklahoma Indian tribes also offer special license plates to their tribal members.

Three of the tribes — the Chickasaw, Choctaw and Cherokee Nations — have compacts and revenue sharing arrangements with the state that allow their special license plates to be issued to tribal members who live anywhere in Oklahoma, Ross said.

The state of Oklahoma issues the plates and registrations for the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations and a portion of the fees the state collects are then rebated back to the tribes. The Cherokee Nation issues its own special plates, but shares revenue with the state on plates issued for vehicles based outside the tribe's jurisdictional boundaries.

Other tribes — the ones that don't have compacts — are limited to issuing license plates to tribal members whose vehicles are principally based within the tribe's recognized jurisdictional area. Those tribes don't share revenue with the state, Ross said.

If a person or organization in Oklahoma would like a special license plate that is not currently offered, there are two ways they can get one created.

One option is to ask a member of the state Legislature to author a bill creating a new license plate. If the bill is approved, the person or organization making the request is responsible for designing a new license plate that is subject to Oklahoma Tax Commission approval. Unless the bill states otherwise, 100 prepaid applications for the license plates must be submitted within 100 days of the effective date of the legislation, or the plates will not be produced.

Individuals and groups also have the option of applying directly to the Oklahoma Tax Commission for creation of a new special license plate. People who pursue this option must submit 500 prepaid applications for the special plates at the time they apply for the new plates.

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Randy Ellis

For the past 30 years, staff writer Randy Ellis has exposed public corruption and government mismanagement in news articles. Ellis has investigated problems in Oklahoma's higher education institutions and wrote stories that ultimately led to two... Read more ›