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Who taught you to drive?

More charities could benefit from their own license plates

Proposed charity license plates include those offering support for Atlantic white sharks and the Pan-Mass Challenge.

Proposed charity license plates include those offering support for Atlantic white sharks and the Pan-Mass Challenge.

What do the Girl Scouts, the Massachusetts Association of Realtors, and the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy have in common?

By this fall, all three could see their logos plastered on Massachusetts license plates.

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A group of state lawmakers headed by Representative Jeffrey Roy, a Franklin Democrat, and Senator Karen Spilka, an Ashland Democrat, has filed legislation that would make it substantially easier for charities to obtain their own license registration plate. If the bill succeeds, the number of charitable plates available to motorists — currently there are 18 to choose from — could more than double by year’s end.

House Bill 3136 faces its first big test this week when the Joint Committee on Transportation decides whether to allow it to move forward. Given the struggles that most charities face in getting a plate made, it might just have the momentum it needs.

The Registry of Motor Vehicles has offered special plates, the official name for charity plates, since 1991, with the popular Cape Cod and Islands plate debuting in 1996, the Red Sox Foundation plate in 2003, and the Patriots Foundation plate in 2005, among others. (State law restricts special plates to 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations.) The plates earned roughly $4.75 million for their charities in fiscal 2013, according to the Registry.

But since 2010, only two groups — Wakefield-based Choose Life Inc. and the University of Massachusetts Amherst Alumni Association — have met the criteria needed to get their plates added to the list. Dozens of other proposed plates have gone nowhere.

Even groups with substantial memberships to draw support from, such as the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts and Rotary International, have fallen short in their efforts to presell 1,500 plates, the statutory threshold for the Registry to commence production.

The 1,500 figure is tough to reach, charities say, because people are hesitant to pay $40 up front for a special plate that could take years to materialize, or may never materialize. (Motorists typically pay $40 when they choose a special plate, plus the standard $50 registration plate fee, for a total of $90.)

New entries also face stiff competition from long-established plates, many of which have a dedicated following.

House Bill 3136, however, would reduce the presell number to 500 plates. That appears to be the magic number for a vast number of nonprofit groups, whose campaigns for license plates often reach that figure before petering out.

“That would mean we would start production today,” said David Hellman, senior vice president of operations for the Pan-Mass Challenge, which has presold 1,000 license plates to benefit the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Paul Yorkis, owner of Patriot Real Estate in Medway, has spent more than three years trying to presell 1,500 plates for the charitable arm of the Massachusetts Association of Realtors. As of Tuesday, he was up to 527.

“That 1,500 figure is the equivalent of Mount Everest,” he said. “I’m not sure there’s any benefit to having the requirement that high.”

The 1,500 benchmark exists, of course, to weed out the weaker plate applications, not block all comers. If the bar is lowered, Massachusetts could see an explosion in applications. Indiana, which requires 500 presold plates, produces license plates for 57 organizations, plus 33 colleges and universities.

Indeed, we could be seeing a cornucopia of images on Massachusetts license plates. Cynthia Wigren, president and cofounder of the Orleans-based Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, told me she has presold more than 400 plates featuring, yes, a shark.

The National Black Doll Museum of Mansfield has expressed interest in a plate, which could mean we will see baby dolls on plates, too. The Pan-Mass Challenge plate, meanwhile, would feature a bicycle and the cycling-friendly message “Share the Road.”

There is also the issue of how well each plate will sell once it is made available to the general public.

Right now, state law requires a special plate’s circulation to rise to 3,000 within its first two years of existence. If fewer than 3,000 plates sell, the charity has to forfeit a portion of the $100,000 bond it posts up front to cover the Registry’s production costs.

If legislators lower the production trigger to 500, they almost certainly will have to lower that secondary, 3,000-plate requirement. If not, charities could end up losing money in the deal.

The bill, should it become law, would most likely take effect in the fall. Will it move forward this week? Hard to say. But Roy and Spilka are not the only ones who feel the system needs tweaking.

Scanning the agenda of last month’s Joint Committee on Transportation hearing, I found nearly a dozen bills concerning special plates. In each case, a particular charity is trying to bypass the Registry’s application process by asking the Legislature to create its plate without any being presold. A “Boston Strong” plate, which would benefit The One Fund Boston, was recently proposed through such a bill.

Yorkis, the catalyst behind House Bill 3136, and others vying for a charitable plate, such as the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, pleaded their case before the Joint Committee in February. Even selling just 500 plates, they said, would mean $20,000 to a charity every time their plates are renewed, which is once every two years.

“We have our silent auctions and other things,” said Yorkis, whose “Welcome Home” plate would feature a house with a white-picket fence. “But what we’re trying to do is have that one strong, reliable revenue stream so we can do a better job at making grants . . . to small entities — food pantries, shelters for battered women — who stretch every dollar.”

Roy, the bill’s official sponsor, visited MCI-Cedar Junction in Walpole this winter to see first-hand how license plates are made by inmates, and to ask whether it would cost the state more money to expand the special-plate program. Other than “a few extra pennies” for each charity’s plate decal, the state’s costs would not increase, he was told.

“There are approximately 60 groups a year that apply for these plates, but no one is ever able to get past that 1,500 threshold,” Roy said.

“I know even the Celtics took [several] years to get their plate. If a group with that much marketing ability is having that much trouble, think about what smaller groups are facing.”

Peter DeMarco can be reached at peter.demarco@globe.com. His Facebook page is “Who Taught You to Drive?” and on Twitter @whotaughtU2driv.
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