License Plate Issues

I write this knowing how unimportant license plates are in the grand scheme of things. On the other hand, we always want to keep an eye on our Governor when he has something of value to dole out, particularly since he refuses to release the list of recipients. As such the Providence Journal has been pursuing two issues: 1) Should the public get to see the list of who is receiving the coveted low-numbered plates? 2) Why did the DMV stop issuing vanity plates?

First, the low-numbered plates and who is getting them.* These are plates numbered 1-9999, and are officially called “preferred plates.” They are assigned by the governor’s office, not the Division of Motor Vehicles. Here is what lawyers might call the “travel of the case”: The Journal filed an Access to Public Records Act request over a year ago; the governor’s office denied the request; the Journal appealed to the AG; he sided with Governor McKee; the Journal has appealed the decision to Superior Court. For lawyers who might find the arguments interesting — go read the article. Bottom line for now: We will have to wait to see the list of recipients.

(Governor McKee’s track record on using his office to benefit his friends is poor, starting with the $5-million contract to the ILO Group, a consulting entity that incorporated two days after McKee was first sworn in, and later his $3,000 gift to the state union workers for getting vaccinated.)

Second, why did the DMV stop issuing vanity plates? This has been positively baffling since the state makes money on these and the governor’s office is not in the loop. Here and elsewhere, problems cropped up when clever wordsmiths started sneaking vulgar language and pejorative terms past the plate makers. The difference being that other states, when challenged, were able to fix their policies in weeks. We, on the other hand, are bogged down in the whole rule-making mishegaas.

A similar scenario played out in Rhode Island in February 2021 when a federal judge struck down the DMV’s vague policy of prohibiting license plates that “might carry connotations offensive to good taste and decency.”

But two years and 10 months have passed since then, not that anyone’s counting. The DMV still hasn’t adopted a new set of regulations and still isn’t issuing vanity plates.

So getting your vanity plate approved (no matter how benign the message) will take a while. It may be another year to get this going again. Meanwhile the state leaves money on the table.

Vanity plates previously generated at least half a million dollars in revenue each year. The state isn’t passing up all that money, since drivers with existing vanity plates still have to pay $120 to renew them every two years. But it is missing out on the fees for new vanity plates, which typically cost about $70 or more.

*If you are new to town, you may wonder why locals like these low numbers so much? To some people, they are just aesthetically cooler looking; for others, they indicate that the owner of the car is a politically connected big-shot. It’s kind of a Rhode Island thing.


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