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Amid fee controversy, New Yorkers select a new license plate design

ALBANY — New Yorkers, as it turns out, don’t want to look at a depiction on their state license plates of a bridge Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo named for his father.

After all the end-of-summer controversy over plate designs and fees charged to motorists, New Yorkers prefer a new plate, if indeed there has to be a new plate, to contain images a bit more iconic in nature — including Niagara Falls, the Statue of Liberty and part of the Manhattan skyline — than a traffic-packed, downstate bridge on the Thruway.

Unless things change, many, many thousands of New Yorkers will be forced to pay a $25 fee to get an updated license plate when the state starts making the new plates available next spring.

“Excelsior,’’ as the winning design states along the bottom of the plate — the state motto of “ever upward.’’

So goes one of the last chapters in a saga that began, for Cuomo, with much public relations hope but ended up drawing criticism from residents and lawmakers. For his part, Cuomo went after his critics, using terms Friday like “phony” and “hypocrite” to tag those politicians who have been jabbing at what they dubbed as the governor’s “plate-gate” tax increase.

There’s something traditionally tricky about the business of changing license plates in New York State. Cuomo found that out for himself, with critics pounding everything from an idea they called a backdoor tax hike to artwork designs that were, well, hardly inspirational for the Empire State.

The New York Daily News editorial page went so far as to call all five proposed designs “stinkers” and said the Statue of Liberty – depicted on four of the designs – “look sad and amateurish, like earnest attempts by a striving middle-schooler.’’

In an undated image from New York State, the five choices in New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's "statewide survey" for a new license plate. The five choices for a new license plate were strikingly similar — except for a plate with the image of the Cuomo Bridge, named for the governor’s father. (New York State via The New York Times)

The story began August 19, when Cuomo suddenly announced a contest for New Yorkers to go online and vote for their favorite design — among five choices — for a new license plate to be offered next April. The state Friday said 325,000 New Yorkers voted in the contest, with 49.7% selecting one that depicts several well-known locations around the state.

The catch: The state estimated 3 million vehicles would need replacement plates for the ones that are 10 or more years old. Cuomo’s office said the charge would be $25 to get one of the new plates, with a $20 surcharge if motorists wanted to keep the same numbers and letters as currently on their vehicles.

Amid the criticism, Department of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Mark Schroeder last week said the administration is open to efforts to reduce the fee.

The DMV says the new plates are intended to replacing the aging "Empire Blue & White" plates.

After relentless pounding by politicians, mostly Republicans, as well as some newspaper editorials, Cuomo’s mood was sour on the topic by Friday. He said the $25 fee for license plate replacements has been on the books for 10 years, and lawmakers had all that time to reduce the charge.

“Fine, find the money,’’ he challenged lawmakers who want to lower the fee — and therefore the amount Albany brings in from the fee.

In a radio interview on Albany public station WAMC, Cuomo said license plates over 10 years old and still in good shape will not have to get the new plates. “We don’t want anyone to have to replace a plate if the plate is in fine condition,’’ he said. How that will be determined is still up in the air, but he suggested it could be part of a motorist’s annual inspection.

Cuomo said the new plates are necessary to improve the ability of the state’s expanding electronic tolling systems to be able to accurately read motorists’ license plates in vehicles that do not have E-ZPass.

The 2009 state budget bill that okayed the $25 license plate replacement fee is not as iron-clad as the Cuomo administration has been suggesting. That language, part of the state’s Vehicle and Traffic Law, states that the state DMV can collect a fee “not to exceed twenty-five dollars” for replacement plates. Revenues from the fee, the legislation states, go into the state’s general fund.

Fees aside, the design process sparked its own rounds of controversy. Some suggested the Statue of Liberty was depicted on four of the five designs as part of some diabolical scheme to split the Statue of Liberty vote so that one featuring an image of the new Mario M. Cuomo Bridge in Westchester County would rise to the top place in the contest.

In the end, the state DMV said, only 9.7% of respondents selected the Cuomo bridge design — tying for last place among the five entries.

Republicans have especially enjoyed poking Cuomo over the plate matter. On Friday, state GOP Chairman Nick Langworthy went to the state Capitol to hand-deliver to Cuomo’s office a Freedom of Information request seeking documents about what the GOP called the “license plate tax contest.’’

“Forcing New Yorkers to pay a new license plate tax and then devising a rigged contest to get his namesake bridge design is classic Prince Andrew,’’ Langworthy said. His request to Cuomo’s office seeks all correspondence and other information about what he called “this so-called contest.’’

Richard Azzopardi, a Cuomo senior advisor, said, “It’s sad that the New York Republicans have gone full tilt Trump and given its reins to a two-bit conspiracy theorist.’’ He said Langworthy’s fellow Republicans did nothing to change the license plate replacement fee level when the GOP controlled the Senate until Jan. 1. (The fee was increased under the administration of former Gov. David Paterson.)

On Friday, Cuomo lashed out at politicians and the media for not, as he put it, telling the whole story about the license plate fee. “Politics meets cheap journalism,’’ Cuomo said of the whole affair.

Schroeder, the DMV commissioner, joined in late Friday afternoon. “I would be remiss if I didn’t again address the hypocrisy and misstatements regarding the pre-set cost of a license plate that were made by headline-grabbing politicians during this process,’’ Schroeder said in a statement.

He said he looks forward to working with lawmakers “to establish a cost-effective system to distribute the new plates” prior to their issuance on April 1.

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