Do you care about the survival of sea turtles? Dolphins? Do you ride horses, watch whales or fish for large-mouth bass? Did you serve as a paratrooper — or care for someone who did?
If so, you can tell the world — with your license tag.
These are among the 120 organizations, causes and career paths commemorated by specialty Florida license plates. And while alumni of the University of Florida and Florida State claim the top sales spots, the $15-to-$25 fees paid for the tags help support a host of groups around the state.
Helping Sea Turtles Survive is the third most-popular tag, followed by Protect the Wild Dolphin and Protect the Panther, each with sales of more than 53,000 last year. The least popular plate was Clearwater Christian College with only 57 active registrations.
Up to five more may join the overall lineup soon. In the just-ended legislative session, lawmakers approved tags recognizing the American Legion, Freemasonry, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Operation Desert Storm and Operation Desert Shield, plus one for child-advocacy group Lauren's Kids. If they get 1,000 or more preorders in the next 24 months, they will go into production.
Florida sold 1.34 million specialty license plates in 2012, generating a total of more than $33 million. The annual use fee, set by the Legislature, is in addition to the roughly $72 it costs to register a vehicle.
UF's iconic Gator tag, bought by 97,348 drivers, generated more than $2.4 million for scholarships last year. By contrast, just 13,309 drivers bought University of Central Florida plates, providing more than $330,000 for the school.
The Aquaculture plate, which goes to support eco-friendly fish farming, brought in $332,725 for the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution at Florida Atlantic University. In 2012, the plate helped fund two years of post-doctoral work for an FAU scientist to examine the impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on Gulf Coast aquatic species. It also funded a project that worked to create sustainable land-based fish farming.
The "Helping Sea Turtles Survive" plate, which typically battles with FSU for the No. 2 spot, brought in more than $1.4 million from its 62,500 buyers in 2012. So far, it's promised more than $311,000 in grants for the next fiscal year, mostly to university researchers studying sea turtles.
Of that, $14,218 is going to the Loggerhead Marine Life Center in Juno Beach to research the leatherback sea turtle population in Palm Beach County. The center has been identifying and tagging nesting leatherbacks to track their habits.
"Leatherback sea turtle populations in the Pacific Ocean are in significant decline, and many colleagues believe they will be extinct in the very near future," said Kelly Martin, a research biologist for Loggerhead Marinelife Center.
Not all tags are successful, though.
Over the past few years, the state has discontinued specialty plates for the Girl Scouts; the Orlando Predators and the Tampa Bay Storm of the Arena Football League; and the Corrections Foundation, a support group for state corrections employees.
Essentially, not enough people were buying them. If sales drop below 1,000 a year, the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles puts tags on probation for a year. If sales don't rebound, the tag is canceled.
Two plates — one promoting the St. Johns River, and another called "Hispanic Achievers" to show pride in Hispanic heritage and provide scholarships and programs for Hispanic students in Florida — are currently on probation. A third, benefiting the American Red Cross, is also slated to go on probation.
A few small colleges — like Clearwater Christian College — also sell less than 1,000 plates, but the Legislature exempted them from the minimum sale requirement.
In 2008, legislators imposed a moratorium on new specialty plates until 2014, but exempted anyone who had submitted an application by 2008. Groups applying for a specialty tag must pay a fee of up to $60,000 and provide the state with a short-term marketing strategy as well as a design. The applications are then sent to the Legislature, which decides whether to authorize them.
If approved by lawmakers and the governor, plates must receive 1,000 pre-orders in a 24-month period to be manufactured. Otherwise, they will not be made.
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Top Five Specialty Plates