The License Plate Gambit

Don't think you're going to get rich by attaching a slogan to the backs of people's cars.

An "Imagine" license plate features John Lennon's scribbled portrait, so you'd never guess by looking at it that its proceeds go to fund the Florida Association of Food Banks Inc. "Hospice: Every Day Is a Gift" is a morbid reminder of our impending mortality. And every two-bit college in the state seems to have its own plate, including Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Eckerd College.

Then there are the ever-popular panther plates, the save-the-manatee plates, and the "Choose Life" plates (though still no "Pro-Choice" rejoinder).

There are now 103 different specialty plate options — filling a wall at Tailpipe's local DMV headquarters in Sunrise — for Florida drivers who are willing to plunk down an extra $15 to $25. For the most part, the display stands as a monument to the lengths politicians will go to pander to voter niche groups.

When the 'Pipe opts for good old Florida oranges, his DMV handler doesn't seem surprised.

"We kind of killed it," she says, gesturing toward the collection of plates looming above other helpless DMV clients with its overwhelming array of choice.

A look at the stats suggests she's right. Florida more than doubled its number of specialty plates between 2001 and 2005, but revenue from the highway-cluttering program is veering downward.

A boom in the proliferation of license plate salad? "There has not been a boom in specialty plates per se," Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles spokesman Frank Penela avows, though Florida added 33 plates to the state's rolls in 2003 and 2004 alone. The Florida Legislature continues to add more: 12 new plates were hung on DMV walls in 2005. (Tailpipe's favorite is "Family Values," which funds a Christian family ministry and has sold a miserable 735 copies, making it one of the DMV's big flops.) Not a boom, then; just a plague.

A lot of the plates lose money. Twenty-three plates sold fewer than 1,000 copies in the past 12 months, the number required for them to recoup the cost of creating, storing, and offering them every year. In 2004, in a last-gasp attempt at self-discipline, the Florida Legislature passed a bill requiring that such plates be discontinued.

But this spring, lawmakers bowed to pressure, mostly from tiny Florida schools such as Lynn University and the diminutive Eckerd. Lawmakers gave 21 plates, 20 of them benefiting small universities, an extra year to rally support before being axed. In the meantime, they'll continue to suck up state resources.

Maybe it makes sense that special-interest groups would want to jump on the bandwagon of license plate fundraising. The state's most popular specialty plate for the past four years, "Protect the Panther," has raked in $41,963,502 since it was first offered in 1990, the vast majority of it pure gravy for the Florida Panther Research and Management Trust Fund. Who wouldn't want a piece of that pie?

But the license plate algae bloom is probably hurting overall sales. The panther plate is selling less than it used to, and in 2003 — the year 33 new plates were added — University of Florida plates experienced a drop in sales for the first time since their issuance. Revenue has also been steadily falling for plates commemorating the Challenger explosion and raising money to save the manatee, some of the state's oldest and most lucrative plates.

The kicker is that in the past four years, despite adding twice as many options, revenue from all specialty plates combined increased by only about a third. Adding more plates just doesn't add that many more people to the paltry 12 percent of Florida drivers who bother buying specialty license plates in the first place. So unless it continues to be inflated by legislative loopholes and state money, the specialty plate bubble is going to burst. As far as Tailpipe is concerned, that soft, flatulent sound you hear means it already has.

Fools for Pool

For a moment, the two most electric characters at last week's celebrity/media charity nine-ball tournament intersected on the floor of the ballroom at the Seminole Hard Rock. One was Jeanette Lee, AKA "The Black Widow," a slinky 34-year-old pool champion in town for the Florida Classic tournament; the other, Fort Lauderdale native Michael Irvin, AKA "The Playmaker," three times a Super Bowl champion with the Dallas Cowboys and now football analyst on ESPN. They embraced, and Lee told Irvin that she had been bidding on some of his memorabilia in the silent auction.

A Fox news camera rolled, and someone asked which of them had the better nickname. Irvin's ungallant reply: "The Playmaker, because the object in any sport is to make plays."

The object of the celebrity contest was to raise money for a charity, Vivian's Kidz (pool sharpie Vivian Villarreal's program to benefit missing and exploited children). But with so much star power mixed with newspaper and television schlubs, the big goal of the night was just to maintain face. At one point, Sun-Sentinelsportswriter Harvey Fialkov sized up his coming match against a team with Dolphins quarterback Daunte Culpepper, AKA "How's the knee?" and the number-one-ranked women's player, Allison Fisher, AKA "The Duchess of Doom."

"We have to win," Fialkov said. "I'll get to say I beat Daunte Culpepper at something."

Fialkov was teamed with Monica Webb, AKA "The Assassin," a compact blond pro from Atlanta. They held their own against the Culpepper-Fisher team, but twice in the first two matches, the diminutive Fisher stood over the six-foot-four, 260-pound Culpepper dictating instructions, and twice the quarterback sank the nine-ball. To Fialkov's chagrin.

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