When it comes to license plates, I’ve always been a no-frills kind of guy.
Send me whatever the basic plate is, and I’ll get on down the road. And as it turns out, that’s the case with about 96 percent of you out there, whose cars bear the white plate with a small star, black letters saying “Texas” at the top and “The Lone Star State” at the bottom, along with the plate letters and numbers.
But for those other folks — just under 1 million Texans — those 72 square inches of metal on the front and back bumpers are a palette of individuality, a chance to announce a military or academic affiliation, promote a cause, support a team or declare some state pride. To top it off, about 250,000 of those plates include a personalized message, too.
I decided to look into this diversity of license plate art last week while working on a story about free tolls for disabled, wounded or honored veterans, a policy that the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority is considering. Looking at the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles site, I was startled to see how many different types of military-related plates are available.
Turns out, about 180 of them, including more than 80 designating that a veteran vehicle owner was disabled by his or her service. Those plates are differentiated by the branch of service, the war the veteran fought in and other distinctions. Then there are military designations for a variety of commendations earned — or units served in — but that’s not the half of it, literally.
Texas, along with its private license plate contractor, Austin-based My Plates, offers 474 different designs, in a bewildering number of colors with all manner of artwork wedged into that tiny canvas.
There are the alma mater plates, of course, with the University of Texas version (more than 2,700 issued, according to a somewhat out-of-date count on the DMV website) and one for Texas Exes (816). There also are three plates celebrating Texas A&M (more than 3,000 issued) or nodding to universities across the country — yes, even Oklahoma. Something close to 800 Texas residents apparently are willing to advertise that dubious association.
Even high schools used to get in on the act, but because of a requirement that at least 200 vehicles display any given design, quite a few high school designs were ditched in 2015. The only one left is the Carroll Independent School District, up in the Metroplex. Go, Dragons!
Among the designs discontinued in 2015, by the way, was one for a Dr Pepper plate. Clearly, an abomination that should be reversed.
Being a Texas Rangers fan, I was pleased to see my team beating the Astros 1,066 to 260 on the unofficial plate count. On the field, unfortunately, the Rangers were far behind the World Series champs in the American League West standings. But let’s not dwell on that.
There’s also an “I’d Rather Be Golfing” design, with a silhouette of a golfer stylishly completing a swing. Just 212 Texans have that plate, the website said, so the golfers are barely making the cut.
Texas chauvinism, no one will be surprised to learn, is a popular choice as well.
Among the offerings: “Come and Take It,” “God Bless Texas,” “Native Texan,” “Texas Tough,” the cheery “Smile Texas Style” (promoted by the Texas Dental Association, with some of the proceeds going to charitable tooth care) and, my favorite, “Texas Forever.” Tim Riggins from “Friday Night Lights” would be proud.
There’s also “God Bless America” and “Don’t Tread on Me” for those with a more national focus. No “Make America Great Again” plate. Yet.
A sampling of the others: a “Share the Road” plate promoting bicycling, three Ducks Unlimited plates, cancer research plates, the long-standing “State of the Arts” design (with an impressive 10,492 plates) and “Choose Life.” About 1,500 Texas vehicles display that plate.
For decades, the Legislature has been creating specialty plate types by statute, and there are 125 of those, not including the military plates, which are given to qualifying veterans for free, and others that designate a restricted use (trailers, trucks and the like).
But things took an unusual turn in 2009 when the state reached a contract with My Plates to create new types of plates and market them. My Plates, now in the middle of its second five-year contract with the state, has generated another 119 options.
They’re more expensive, however. Whereas you can get one of the legislatively generated plates (such as the “State of the Arts” plate, for instance) for about $30 — or $40 with a personalized seven-digit message on it — the My Plates offerings cost $50 for one year and $175 for five years. Personalize those, and the tab jumps to $150 for a year and $450 for five years.
There also are occasional auctions for particularly juicy personalized messages, My Plates president Steve Farrar told me. Some years ago, an Aggies alum paid $115,000 for a “12th Man” personalized plate, then donated it to a veteran (and A&M Corps of Cadets member) who had served two tours in Afghanistan and earned two Purple Hearts.
The state gets the first $8 to cover manufacturing costs, no matter what type of plate it is, because residents of the Texas prison system still manufacture them. After that deduction, though, the Texas treasury generally gets 60 percent of the fee. My Plates gets the other 40 percent.
Farrar said the My Plates operation has generated $63 million for the state general fund since 2009.
Texas is not unique in this regard, by the way. Maryland has even more plate designs, close to 600, and Virginia has at least half that many.
The Maryland list included, by my count, at least four yacht club plates, Mensa and a press association.
“Maryland forever?” I don’t think so.