- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 29, 2012

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California’s specialty-license-plate program has raised roughly $250 million for a variety of popular causes, from promoting the arts to preserving Lake Tahoe. Yet there is virtually no independent oversight of how organizations spend the money.

Groups participating in the program must report annually to the state Department of Motor Vehicles about money collected and the percentage spent to promote the specialty plates, which isn’t supposed to exceed 25 percent of the revenue.

Other than that, there is no direct oversight. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office has never examined the program, said analyst Farra Bracht. Neither has the independent state auditor’s office, spokeswoman Dana Braley said.

State Assemblyman Jose Solorio, who championed license plates for pet lovers this year, said state agencies that benefit from the program should use extra caution in spending what essentially are donations. Mr. Solorio, a Democrat from Santa Ana, added that cities and counties that receive funding from those pet plates intended to promote spay and neutering programs will have to report on how the money is spent.

“Both from the fee-payer side as well as from the legislative side, it’s our intention that the money go to a very specific place,” he said. “We need to make sure the state is tracking how the money is expended.”

There is no doubt that specialty plates have been a boon for organizations since the legislature authorized the program in 1992 as a fundraising tool for public agencies and nonprofit organizations.

California has 10 special-interest license plates, with an 11th, supporting agricultural education, on the way. The last specialty plate was established in 2002, but lawmakers are proposing at least five new plates this legislative session.

Assemblyman Jared Huffman, a San Rafael Democrat, is promoting a specialty plate to help fund state parks, a response to closures planned because of the state budget deficit.

In a statement, Mr. Huffman characterized the program as a way to keep state parks open. In a telephone interview, he said he purposely wrote the legislation to allow the Department of Parks and Recreation to spend the money however it sees fit.

“Right now, every part of the parks budget needs help,” he said. “I’m not troubled if it goes to park maintenance or the immediate crisis of closing parks.”

Several beneficiaries of the license plate program say there is no need to track the money collected because it’s spent as intended.

Most of the participants are state agencies that must file annual spending reports.

Additional tracking would be redundant, said Mary Beth Barber of the California Arts Council, which has raised more than $51 million through the program since 1994.

“If you start saying that we need to have everything in a license plate report, then you’re going into the duplicative efforts that state agencies try not to do because it wastes staff time,” she said.

But several other groups, including the California Coastal Conservancy, could not provide exact accountings of how the money raised through the sale of specialty plates had been spent.



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