(Portland) Press Herald
PORTLAND, ME The number of loon license plates issued
in Maine has fallen nearly 30 percent in the past six years,
creating budget concerns within state agencies that benefit
from sales of the plates.
People buying conservation license plates with a loon on
them pay a $15 annual renewal fee. Of that, $8.40 goes to
the Department of Conservation, and $5.60 goes to the Department
of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
Loon plate sales reached 59,829 in their inaugural year in
1994 and steadily rose to 110,625 in 1998.
In that peak year, the Department of Conservation received
about $926,000 from loon plate registrations for its Bureau
of Parks and Lands. Fisheries and Wildlife received more than
$617,000 that year; the money must go to the department's
Endangered and Nongame Wildlife Fund.
But loon plate sales have decreased in recent years, falling
to 79,704 in 2002. As a result, annual funding to the Conservation
Department has fallen more than $255,000, while Fisheries
and Wildlife is now getting about $170,000 a year less than
it did in 1998.
Officials attribute the decline to sales of the University
of Maine vanity plate and the new lobster license plate. Those
plates provide funding to the university's scholarship fund
and for lobster research.
Officials say an added factor was the state's switch of its
regular license plate, for which motorists pay no extra fee,
a few years ago from a small red lobster to a chickadee.
"We have people in our agency who depend on the license
sales for their job positions," said Sandy Ritchie, a
wildlife planner with the Department of Inland Fisheries and
Wildlife. "So it's very important to us. That's one reason
why we've started an initiative to promote the loon license."
Steve Curtis of the Bureau of Public Lands said the creation
of the conservation license plate a decade ago was "like
a godsend to us."
"We have an $80 million infrastructure of state parks,
and we need to continually do upkeep and maintenance work
in them," Curtis said. "Recent budget cuts have
us leaning heavily on loon plate sales."
Ritchie is also concerned that dwindling numbers of Mainers
are contributing to the state's endangered species fund.
Mainers contribute to the fund through a checkoff option
on the state income tax form, and the number has fallen by
more than half since the state moved the checkoff option from
the primary tax form to a supplemental form in 1998.
The number of contributors fell from 8,686 in 1987 to 4,065
in 1998. According to Fisheries and Wildlife statistics, 3,661
contributed in 2002, but donations have remained steady