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State worries about sharp drop in loon license plates

(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

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