Current UM students Sean Pfahler (CQ) and Sara Minott both sport The University of Maine Black Bears specialty license plates on their vehicles. These license plates came out in 2003 and a portion of the fee goes into the University's General Scholarship Fund, which has just reached $1 million. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

Since the famous loon conservation license plates were made available for purchase by Maine car owners in 1994, the state has added eight more special charity license plates, each of which costs more than the standard plates, but sends a portion of the additional fees to support the cause illustrated by the plate.

The Maine Secretary of State’s office recently released to the Bangor Daily News comprehensive data on the specialty license plate programs going back to the first loon plates, showing the various plates’ relative popularity over time, how much revenue was raised and — generally speaking — how that money was allocated.

We then took the liberty of putting that data in the form of easily digestible charts for your perusal. The results of that work can be found below, along with some brief descriptions of each specialty plate and what causes they benefit, as explained by the Secretary of State.

Each of the plates listed cost $20 to acquire and $15 to renew, except the Sportsman plate, which costs $20 to renew as well. Those costs are above and beyond registration fees and whatever vanity plate word you may want to pay for.

There is also an effort underway to launch a new specialty license plate for children’s health care, which would raise money for the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center.

There are also Wabanaki Recognition plates, but you must prove membership in a federally recognized tribe in the Wabanaki Confederacy to acquire one of those, as well as a series of plates available only to certain military veterans. There have also been commemorative plates made available during limited periods of time, including a current offering celebrating the 100th anniversary of the U.S. Navy Reserve. But for the purposes of this breakdown, we’re just charting permanent specialty plates available to the general population.

First, let’s take a look at these plates and charts, and then we’ll make some observations about the information.

(* For Fiscal Year 2016, which began on July 1, the numbers only go out to Sept. 30, which explains why those numbers are much lower than all the others.

** Excluding first year, as some plates were introduced partway through their first years, and 2016 year-to-date.

*** Sportsman plate revenues contributed to the Highway Fund starting in the second year.

Note: The numbers on the Y axis in all charts are total dollars.)

Conservation Plate 

  • Beneficiary: The Maine Environment Trust Fund receives $14 from each set of plates purchased or renewed. The money supports state parks and the Endangered and Nongame Wildlife Fund.
  • Available since: 1994
  • Peak sales: 111,082 units in 1999
  • Low sales**: 44,926 units in 2015
conservation plate
Credit: Maine Secretary of State
Conservation specialty plate chart
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University of Maine System Plate

UMS
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UMS specialty plate chart
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 Lobster Plate

lobster plate
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Lobster specialty plate chart
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Black Bear Plate

  • Beneficiary: The Maine Black Bears Scholarship Fund receives $10 from each Black Bear plate purchased or renewed
  • Available since: 2004
  • Peak sales: 9,961 units in 2015
  • Low sales**: 5,276 units in 2005
black bear plate
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UMS Black Bear specialty plate chart
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Agriculture Plate

  • Beneficiary: The Maine Agriculture Education Fund receives $10 from each purchase and renewal fee. This will generate funds to be used for agricultural education in Maine. Training and materials for teachers, grants for agricultural programs in school and field trips are some programs these funds will support.
  • Available since: 2008
  • Peak sales: 17,089 units in 2015
  • Low sales**: 11,928 units in 2009
ag plate
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Agriculture specialty plate chart
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Support Your Troops Plate

  • Beneficiary: The proceeds from the Support Your Troops specialty plate provide financial assistance to the members of the Maine National Guard, residents of the State who are members of the Reserves, the families of those members, or will be used for other emergencies and special needs as determined by the Support Your Troops Advisory Board overseeing the Maine Military Family Relief Fund.
  • Available since: 2008
  • Peak sales: 5,947 units in 2015
  • Low sales**: 3,202 units in 2009
support troops plate
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Troops specialty plate chart
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Sportsman Plate

  • Beneficiary: The Sportsman Plate funds will be distributed to the Fish Hatchery Maintenance Fund; the Boat Launch Facilities Fund; the Maine Endangered and Nongame Wildlife Fund; and the Support Landowners Program.
  • Available since: 2008
  • Peak sales: 25,642 units in 2015
  • Low sales**: 8,762 units in 2009
sportsmen's plate
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Sportsmen's specialty plate chart
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Breast Cancer Support Plate

  • Beneficiary: The proceeds from the Breast Cancer Support Services specialty plate raises money to be deposited into the Breast Cancer Services Special Program Fund, established by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention will then equally distribute the funds to a breast and cervical health program within the center. This health program will provide services to underserved people with breast health and breast cancer needs and provide funding for cancer research, education, and patient support programs.
  • Available since: 2009
  • Peak sales: 23,678 units in 2015
  • Low sales**: 11,676 units in 2010
breast cancer plate
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Breast cancer specialty plate chart
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Animal Welfare Plate

  • Beneficiary: The proceeds from the Support Animal Welfare specialty plate will be equally distributed between the Animal Welfare Auxiliary Fund and the Companion Animal Sterilization Fund.
  • Available since: 2010
  • Peak sales: 15,765 units in 2015
  • Low sales**: 8,481 units in 2011
animal welfare
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animal welfare specialty plate chart
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Overall allocation to beneficiaries over time

beneficiaries chart
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Top specialty license plates in Maine by 2015 sales

  1. Conservation, 44,926
  2. Lobster, 28,266
  3. Sportsman, 25,642
  4. Breast Cancer Awareness, 23,678
  5. Agriculture, 17,089
  6. Animal Welfare, 15,765
  7. Black Bear, 9,961
  8. Support Your Troops, 5,947
  9. UMS, 4,493

Observations

A couple of things jump right out at you when you look at these numbers. First, all but the oldest two specialty plates — the loon conservation plate and the University of Maine System plate — enjoyed their best years in 2015, and six of the nine have seen at least five consecutive years of increases.

While it’s clear those early specialty plates have seen their revenue generation cannibalized by the spate of newer offerings, overall specialty plate sales in Maine are higher than they’ve ever been.

But even after dropping off precipitously since its peak year of 1999, the loon conservation plate remains the bestselling specialty plate in Maine by a wide margin — nearly 45,000 units in 2015, compared to the next top performer, the lobster plate, with a little more than 28,000 units sold.

It’s difficult to tell without surveying everyone with a specialty plate what people’s motivations are for buying them. But I wonder if some of the purchases are more for aesthetics than for loyalty to causes — Maine’s lobster industry is in the middle of a historic boom like never before seen, and yet plate buyers here are donating to that cause more than almost any other. The two specialty plates which sold the least in 2015, the UMS plate and Support Your Troops plate, are arguably also the most plainly designed.

Perhaps the biggest winner is the state’s highway fund, which has seen its revenues from specialty license plates trend steadily upward since 2003 as more choices appealing to wider numbers of Mainers have come on line. The highway fund helps pay for infrastructure maintenance and repair, state police coverage and staffing, among other things.

You probably also notice the “Specialty Plate Fund” eating up some of the revenues in recent years. That fund pays for the creation and manufacture of the specialty plates.

As more and more Mainers are choosing to pay for specialty license plates, another question worth pondering is: What other causes might be able to take advantage of this trend?

The numbers are indicating there could still be demand for additional specialty license plate choices without driving down sales of most of the existing ones.

Should there be license plates that help the wild blueberry and potato industries, for instance? How about funds to help renovate and preserve historic Maine buildings, lighthouses and churches?

Could specialty plates be designed to raise money for programs that work to curb domestic violence or drug abuse? End hunger or homelessness?

Which of those specialty plate ideas would you be most likely to support? Have another idea? Leave it in the comments or share it on Facebook.

Of course, you can still throw your weight behind the aforementioned children’s health care plate being proposed as well.

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Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.