When Rasmus Praestholm relocated to Florida from his native Denmark it wasn’t the sun and sand that caught his eye. It was the license plates.
“You do have a lot of colorful plates here,” the computer programmer said. “And I must say, some are quite clever.”
France may have invented the license plate. And Massachusetts may have printed the first plate in the United States. But Florida has turned plate designs into a money-raising art form for charities and other nonprofits.
Florida isn't No. 1 in the number of what it calls "specialty plates" it offers motorists. With 122 plates currently available for sale, it follows way behind Texas with 360 designs and Virginia with 340 different tags.
But perhaps no other state offers a more creative variety of license plates than Florida. (Specialty plates differ from "vanity" plates, which carry a personalized message, such as a nickname.)
Floridians can adorn their cars with a plate that shows children reading under a tree, or one with a self-portrait of the late pop music legend John Lennon.
There’s a plate with blossoming wildflowers, another with fluttering butterflies and one with a burnt orange design that features a surfer silhouetted against a setting sun.And soon, if a Tampa lawmaker gets his way, eagles, bulldogs and a crimson tide will appear on cars, trucks and motorcycles at an intersection near you.
GOP state Rep. James Grant wants to repeal a ban on plates promoting out-of-state universities with a proposal to create plates for Auburn University and the universities of Georgia and Alabama. The money raised would provide scholarships to Florida residents who attend the schools.
Grant, an Auburn graduate, has introduced a version of this year’s bill (HB 1135) every year since 2017, after a previous failure to amend another bill to create the plate. Twice he convinced the House to approve the measure only to see it die in the Senate.
His bill gets its first hearing in a House subcommittee Tuesday.
The Auburn alum took criticism in committee meetings that it was not appropriate for Florida to issue plates promoting an out-of-state university.
He countered that University of Florida plates are available in Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Texas. And Florida State University tags can be purchased in Alabama, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.
Four years ago, when he first hatched the idea for an Auburn War Eagle tag, he and fellow Auburn graduate Kevin Cate — a Democratic political consultant — set up a website to build public support.
In a video the two produced, they mention their school's 2004 football team that went undefeated while they were undergraduates. They called on other alumni to join the effort to create an Auburn plate in Florida.
“Quite frankly, I think we probably have too many (specialty) tags,” Grant acknowledged to the Auburn Undercover blog about one of the challenges the proposal faced when he began working on it in 2016. “I just don’t think that means no new ones.
"I think that means, let’s assess the ones that are selling and not selling,” he added.
Florida began issuing specialty plates in 1986 when it created one to honor the space shuttle Challenger astronauts who perished when it exploded that January. Plates for the state universities quickly followed.
The manatee, panther and bear plates followed in the 1990s. Soon there were plates for horse breeders and bicyclists, the ocean, and the different fish in the ocean, along with ones for lighthouses.
Typically, the owner of a motor vehicle pays an additional $25 to the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. It then distributes the money to organizations designated to support the cause or charity the plate promotes.
In 2018, the 1.4 million specialty tags on Florida vehicles raised nearly $35 million for nonprofits, according to the state.
While law enforcement once complained that the various designs make it difficult for officers and crime witnesses to read a license plate number, the sheer popularity of the plates has silenced opposition.
Grant's bill limits the number of specialty plates to 125 and increases the minimum number of annual sales required to keep a plate in circulation. That minimum is currently 1,000; Grant would raise it to 3,000.
Thirty-nine plates, including those for the Orlando Magic basketball team, Miami Marlins baseball team, the American Legion and Scouting, would no longer be available under the bill.
But it creates another 18 new specialty plates, including ones for the three out-of-state universities. Grant proposes a new tag for the Daughters of the American Revolution, a Florida Bay Forever plate, one for the Orlando City Soccer Club and a Dan Marino Campus plate to benefit a school for young adults with autism.
The top selling plate in the state now is for the University of Florida: 93,053 in circulation.
"Helping Sea Turtles Survive" is the second most popular (82,001), followed by "Endless Summer," going toward "surfing preservation" (73,289) and Florida State University (71,485).
The Miami Heat is the most popular sports franchise plate, 10th overall, with 36,728. The plate for the U.S. Marine Corps leads military-themed plates with 45,045 in circulation – good enough for number 7 overall, followed by Army with 34,775 at number 12.
Veterans of the Air Force and Navy are locked in a tight competition at number 16 and 17. The Air Force has a 34-plate lead on the sailors with a total of 25,563 plates sold, and Navy close behind at 25,329.
Praestholm says when he went to get a plate for his Toyota Prius, he and spouse Vanessa debated over which plate to buy that's dedicated to an animal welfare cause. The iconic Florida manatee plate, along with the realistic-looking Florida panther tag, were among the couple’s finalists.
He and Vanessa, who one day hopes to be a veterinarian, finally decided to pony up $25 for the "Animal Friend" plate. Last year, it raised $585,800 for spay and neuter efforts of cats and dogs, records show.
“We’re friends with animals,” he said. “And how often do you see a cat and dog together on a beach?”
James Call can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @CallTallahassee.