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Editorial: Cuomo, DMV need to rethink plan to replace license plates

The comedian George Carlin had some observations about state license plates: “The most dramatic license plate of all has to be New Hampshire’s, which says, ‘Live free or die.’ On the other end of the spectrum is Idaho’s, which says, ‘Famous potatoes.’ It would seem to me that somewhere in-between the truth lies.”

So it is with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s plan to mandate the replacement of older license plates in New York. Critics call it an unseemly cash grab by Albany. Cuomo says it is a necessary step to keep up with technology. We suspect the truth lies in the middle.

The governor introduced the license plate plan with a contest in which New Yorkers got to choose from among five designs. Conspiracy theorists said the fix was in, with four of the designs featuring the Statue of Liberty, the other depicting the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge downstate. The theory was that the vote would be split among Statue of Liberty contenders, allowing the Cuomo bridge to win. It didn’t happen that way. The chosen design was the only one that includes an upstate image – of Niagara Falls – so we think the people chose wisely.

The new rules say that license plates 10 years or older will have to be replaced, starting in April. The cost for new plates is $25, plus another $20 if you want to keep your same plate numbers and letters. An estimated 3 million vehicles in the state would need the new plates under the plan, which would bring a minimum of $75 million in revenue to the state.

The governor says that older plates don’t work well with cashless tolling, in which cameras photograph plates as motorists pass through. There are some vehicles driving on our roads with old plates that are all but illegible. That’s an inconvenience for tolling and a potential danger for law enforcement personnel if they can’t identify a vehicle. But driving with plates like that is already a violation and would earn the driver a ticket.

There’s not a lot of evidence that an 11-year-old license plate can’t be picked up by the toll cameras, here in New York or in nearby states or provinces. The 10-year cut-off seems arbitrary.

Between our high gas prices, insurance rates, tolls and the cost of keeping our vehicles registered, New York motorists already shell out plenty. For too many people, it will add another $25 to $45.

Cuomo says the $25 fee has been on the books for 10 years and the Legislature did nothing to lower it. As a recent Buffalo News story pointed out, the law really just sets a ceiling.

The 2009 state budget bill that included the license plate replacement fee said the DMV can collect a fee “not to exceed $25 for replacement plates.”

Cuomo, in an Albany radio interview, said license plates more than 10 years old that are in good condition won’t have to be replaced. He didn’t specify how that would be determined.

Mark Schroeder, the DMV commissioner, has said the administration is open to reducing the fee. The new regulations would go into effect in April. We’re confident that Cuomo and Schroeder can sand off some of the rough edges before then.

The winning design for the new plate is called “Excelsior,” echoing the state motto that means “ever upward.” Those words too often describe the taxes and fees that we all send to Albany.

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