Business & Real Estate

New DMV license plate program could spur arts funding

Pitching tax-deductible arts license plates to businesses and individuals for year-end giving, the California Arts Council is making it easier to buy them from the DMV.

It’s the first time that Californians can purchase multiple versions – via a $50 voucher – of one of the state’s nine specialty license plates, which benefit varied special interests, ranging from agriculture to military veterans. The voucher is only available for the arts plates, not the others.

Craig Watson, director of the California Arts Council, called it “a win-win” for arts supporters and businesses looking for creative tax deductions.

“It could be a part of a car dealership strategy to add it to a new car purchase. Major companies with CEOs who are major arts supporters can send them (vouchers) to friends and clients. If I’m an arts supporter, I can buy them to share (that passion),” Watson said.

Until now, only individual vehicle owners could purchase a specialty plate, using their car’s individual identification number. With the new voucher system, which took nearly two years to devise with DMV and an outside digital company, anyone can purchase a $50 “Arts Plate” voucher to give away as gifts to friends, family or clients. The donor takes a tax deduction for every voucher purchased; the recipient can take subsequent tax deductions for the annual $40 renewal fee. (The voucher program does not apply to the arts council’s $98 custom license plate, where you select personalized letters or numbers.)

“It’s a unique twist and a way of marketing that we’ve never been able to do before,” said Watson, calling the arts vouchers a first-in-the-nation option.

As of January 2013, the state Department of Motor Vehicles said there are more than 403,200 specialty plates registered in California.

“The DMV is supportive of the specialty license plate program and worked closely with the California Arts Council to establish this innovative voucher option designed to encourage sales of the Arts specialty license plate,” said DMV spokesman Jaime Garza in an email.

The California Arts Council gets roughly 60 percent of its annual budget from sales and renewals of its specialty plate, which features palm trees and an ocean sunset. For each $50 license plate, the council said it collects about $35, while $15 goes to DMV for processing costs.

The arts license plates, designed by famed Sacramento artist Wayne Thiebaud, were first issued in 1994. They’re among specialty license plates that California drivers can purchase – for an added fee – to benefit such causes as Lake Tahoe preservation, Yosemite National Park, coastal protection, firefighter memorials, California agriculture and college scholarships.

The vouchers, which can be purchased like a gift card or sent via email, were designed in conjunction with the Santa Monica office of Topps Digital Services, which specializes in “digital currency” products. Unlike a gift card, the vouchers do have an expiration date; for Art Plates vouchers sold this year, the expiration date is June 2016.

The recipient uses the voucher to purchase a new license plate bearing the Thiebaud-designed artwork. If the recipient doesn’t redeem the voucher before the expiration date, the funds still revert to the arts council.

Currently, the council receives just under $3 million a year from sales and renewals of its special plates. “Conservatively, we think we can more than double the annual revenue we receive,” said Watson, reaching at least $6 million in the next several years. The council hopes to sell 10,000 vouchers by the end of 2015.

Call The Bee’s Claudia Buck, (916) 321-1968. Read her Personal Finance columns at