New legislation could affect where revenue from Florida’s “Choose Life” license plates ends up — moving it out of the hands of counties, who then distribute it to adoption organizations, and into the hands of Choose Life, Inc., which would distribute some of the money to various pregnancy centers, and keep the rest for publicity and upkeep.

But finding out where the money currently ends up is no easy feat.

Under the system now in place, revenues are funneled through the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles and into Florida’s counties. Each county receives money proportional to how many of it residents spend the extra cash to purchase the state’s bright yellow “Choose Life” specialty plate.

According to state law, each county must then distribute the funds to “nongovernmental, not-for-profit agencies within the county, which agencies’ services are limited to counseling and meeting the physical needs of pregnant women who are committed to placing their children for adoption.” Funds cannot go to “any agency that is involved or associated with abortion activities.”

From July 2009 to June 2010, the net state revenue collected from new registrations and renewals of Florida’s “Choose Life” plates totaled $649,640. Some of the highest-grossing counties for the plates were Duval, Marion and Collier counties; revenues from each county amounted to over $20,000.

In Alachua County, where the plate purchases totaled $10,400, revenues are sent to Catholic Charities of Gainseville.

“At least 70 percent has to be used directly on women making adoption plans on anything from rent to clothing to utilities … anything they need to maintain a healthy pregnancy and be safe,” says Geralyn Ryan, the group’ director of adoptions. “The other 30 percent can be used on advertising for adoptions or on counseling. It cannot be used at all for administrative [purposes]. We pretty much use almost 100 percent towards women’s material needs: rent, utilities, medical, doctors, foster care, all different things.”

Catholic Charities in Gainseville works in 17 counties, but the money it receives from the plates is only used in two. According to Ryan, this is because the law itself stipulates that the money “has to stay in the county where the tag was purchased.”

Ryan says that some Florida counties give the money directly to charities but that others ask organizations to submit receipts to the county for reimbursements. In addition to funding its own work, Catholic Charities of Gainseville doles out smaller reimbursements to other like-minded groups in the area.

“There are a couple other groups that work on the front end of the pregnancy — Arbor House and Women’s Resource Center. They basically counsel women who haven’t decided if they are interested in adoption yet,” Ryan says. “In the past, we’ve also given reimbursements to Florida Baptist Children’s Home and Christian Family Services. Basically, those groups give us the bills and we decide if it meets the requirements of the law. And then we give all of the receipts back to the county, who then reimburse us.”

Duval County, which earned $43,560 from the plates, sends its revenues to Catholic Charities, and the Orlando offices of Catholic Charities also receive revenue from the plates.

Finding out where the funds ultimately land once they go through other counties proved difficult.

When The Florida Independent contacted the Marion County Tax Collector’s office asking for information on how it disburses its funds, a clerk could only suggest that we consult the original legislation.

In Marion County last year, “Choose Life” plate sales brought in $30,780 — not surprising considering Choose Life, Inc. is based in Ocala.

As unclear as the money flow may be, under the current law, the “Choose Life” money is required to end up with agencies that promote adoptions. But a new piece of legislation — Senate Bill 196 (.pdf) — sponsored by state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, could drastically affect that.

As the law now reads, at least 70 percent of the revenue in each county must be used to provide for the physical needs of pregnant women, while the other 30 percent can be used on counseling services and other programs.

Fasano’s legislation would rewrite the law, doing away with the 70-30 split and putting all of the funds in the hands of Choose Life, Inc., which would then distribute some of the money and use the rest for promotional purposes. Some have argued that a changed law could mean that money ends up in the hands of controversial crisis pregnancy centers, which have been found to promote misleading information about abortion and birth control.

Though she says she doesn’t fully grasp all the potential effects of changed legislation, Ryan says that she does have an issue with the current rules:

There are small counties where the money just sits there. I’m curious to know how the money from our state’s 67 counties eventually gets used. I know where the money in Alachua goes, but what about these smaller towns in Florida? What if you want to support adoption so you buy a “Choose Life” tag, but your county might not even be doing anything with the money. In that case, what’s the point of even buying a tag?

Ryan says that, even if Florida’s law changes, she believes her organization will still receive revenue from the tags. How much revenue is another question.

“You know, I’d hate to see a big city like Miami get a lot more and we get less,” she says. “I just hope that the money would still be distributed fairly.”

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