An increased license fee is by any other name, well, a tax

To some people a license plate is just a license plate. It’s something they have to keep on their cars to avoid being stopped by the police.

To other motorists, a license plate is a statement. They may pay $50 extra each year for a personalized plate. It’s worth about 15 cents a day to be able to look at their car and see IM2SEXY or G0 BUCS on their bumper — beating the odds to get one of those prized combinations might even be priceless.

They may also pay extra to have one of the 29 different plates with a college logo, or one of the six pro-sports plates or one of 80 other special interest designs.

And for those folks, if Gov. John Kasich includes a recommendation about recalling older Ohio license plates in his budget next week, it will be no big deal.

But those “it’s just a license plate” school of motorists may not be so sanguine.

They pay their $34.50 each year (more if there’s a local government fee) and figure that is quite enough. They know that they don’t have to pay an additional $11.75 for new license plates unless their old plates have become damaged or the letters unreadable.

It’s not unusual to still see the white “Heart of it all” plates with the gold bottom border, circa 1996-2001, on Ohio roads. And there are still plenty of the red, white and blue plates that were first issued for the Ohio Bicentennial in 2001. And while the present multi-hued “Beautiful Ohio” plates with city-and farm-scapes on the bottom and a Wright biplane in the sky were roundly panned when they came out, there are no doubt some motorists who love them. If they could, they would keep them until the Ohio’s semiquincentennial (that’s 250, if you’re counting). That will be out of the question if Public Safety Director Thomas Charles gets his way.

The seven-year pitch

The Public Safety Department’s budget contains a proposal that would give license plates a lifespan of seven years. The obsolete plates would have to be replaced at a fee of $10.

All those bicentennial and gold-tinted plates would be recalled beginning in December.

It wouldn’t matter if a motorist put 1,000 miles a year on a car and the plates looked like new, they would be presumed unsafe.

We might be inclined to see this as a safety issue if every police office in the state didn’t have the legal ability — one might even say obligation — to stop someone driving with an unreadable plate.

The cynic in us suspects that this isn’t as much about safety as it is about revenue. Kasich will be unveiling his budget next week and, it could include an estimated $5 million in additional revenue for the Public Safety Department in fiscal 2014 and 2015 based on the mandatory license plate sales. While the plates will cost the motorist $10, they only cost about $1.50 a pair to produce, making for a nice profit.

In the overall scheme of things, the cost of new plates every seven years is a miniscule part of the expense of driving a car, even if the car spends most of its life in a garage. But there is a principle involved: If the state wants to tax its residents it should acknowledge as much. It shouldn’t sell overpriced metal plates churned out by convicts at the Lebanon Correctional Institution and say it is doing so in the name of safety.

A license plate might be just a license plate, but sometimes it’s a sneaky tax increase.

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