Pay for a special Oregon license plate? Here’s where the money is going

Special Reports

The Smokey Bear license plate was the most purchased specialty plate in 2020

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Oregon’s license plate variety is increasing and so is the amount of revenue the plates are generating. 

Specialty and group license plates have raised millions of dollars for various causes over the years and those causes say they’re putting the money to good use. 

In 2020, the top three most-purchased plates were the Smokey Bear plate, the Pacific Wonderland Plate and the Crater Lake plate. 

The Smokey Bear plate raises money for the Keep Oregon Green Association, a non-profit that educates people on how they can prevent human-caused wildfires. Between its launch date in August 2019 and July 2021, the plate raised nearly $1.4 million for the cause. 

“If I see somebody in a parking lot with a plate, I’ll go up to him and give him a little token of appreciation because we really appreciate that support,” said Kristin Babbs, president of the Keep Oregon Green Association. 

Smokey Bear license plate – Courtesy Oregon DMV

Babbs said the pandemic and the 2020 wildfires likely slowed sales for the Smokey Bear plate, but the revenue it generated in the last 2 years has already made a big difference. Previously, she said the non-profit only had the budget to market to people in areas that experienced the most human-caused wildfires. 

The additional revenue now allows them to reach many more Oregonians in other parts of the state. 

“The Portland market is our most populous city, but we’ve never had the funding to advertise there,” Babbs said. “We know that those folks travel to other parts of Oregon, so it’s important to be able to share that message with everybody.” 

The Pacific Wonderland Plate is a specialty plate that launched in March 2010 and since then, it’s raised more than $10.5 million in revenue. The money is split equally between the Oregon State Capitol Foundation and the Oregon Historical Society

Genoa Ingram, executive director for the Oregon State Capitol Foundation, said the funding from the license plates has covered the cost of more than a dozen projects at the state capitol in the last decade. 

She said the non-profit receives funding from donors, but that money wouldn’t come close to covering the cost of all the projects. 

She said the money from the license plates supports things like updating the Veterans Memorial, creating the Welcome Center at the capitol, and running a civics education program for kids.  

“The board as a whole looks at all of the programs and how do we best fit in with the interpretive plan and making the visitor experience the best that it can absolutely be?” Ingram said, explaining how the board decides how the revenue from the plates will be spent. 

Ingram said the foundation undergoes an audit every year to look at how it’s spending its funds and to ensure the money is going toward worthwhile projects. 

“If it’s not within our mission, and if it’s not within our strategic plan, it doesn’t get funded,” she said. 

As the license plates continue to bring in funds, Babbs said she hopes the Keep Oregon Green Association will be able to continue to provide grants to districts to allow them to continue fire-prevention education in their areas. She also hopes to purchase more billboard and TV advertisements. 

Ingram said the Oregon State Capitol Foundation would like to make the state capitol feel more welcoming to residents in Eastern Oregon. The foundation hopes to sponsor historical societies or museums from other parts of the state and invite them to bring their exhibits to the capitol. 

The third most purchased license plate in 2020 was the Crater Lake plate. The license plate became available in August 2002 and as of July 2021, it had raised more than $7.4 million for the Crater Lake National Park Trust. 

The license plate that’s generated the most revenue since it first became available in Oregon is the salmon plate. As of July, it had raised more than $12.7 million since it became available in January 1998. The Department of Motor Vehicles said it has issued more than 100,000 salmon plates. The funds support the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and Oregon Parks & Recreation.

The chart below shows how much all Oregon specialty and group license plates have raised since they became available:

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