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Blackout continues to sell out

Jasper County issues nearly 1,200 ‘blackout’ plates since introduction in July

Heather Ross, a clerk for the Jasper County Motor Vehicle Department, poses for a photograph holding a sample of the popular Iowa "blackout" plates. In Jasper County, department staff have issued roughly 1,200 blackout license plates to citizens since July 1.
Heather Ross, a clerk for the Jasper County Motor Vehicle Department, poses for a photograph holding a sample of the popular Iowa "blackout" plates. In Jasper County, department staff have issued roughly 1,200 blackout license plates to citizens since July 1.

Citizens of Jasper County don’t mind paying extra for a specialty license plate.

Ever since Iowa’s “blackout” plates were introduced to the public almost four months ago, staff in the Jasper County Motor Vehicle Department have issued almost 1,200 of the signature black-and-white plates. As of Monday morning, 827 regular blackout plates and 354 personalized blackout plates have been distributed to county motorists.

Throughout the state, demand is high for the change in vehicular aesthetics.

The Associated Press reported in late October the Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT) issued more than 46,000 blackout plates since July. As a result, the specialty plates have exceeded the more than 30,000 University of Iowa plates in circulation today.

Now, the blackout color scheme is the most popular specialty license plate design choice among Iowans.

Jasper County Treasurer Doug Bishop said he and “everybody in the entire state of Iowa is totally surprised” by the sudden rush of popularity the blackout plates amassed in such a short time period. Even more so since the process is entirely voluntary and costs more than a standard Iowa license plate.

To purchase regular blackout plates, Iowans are typically charged an initial $35 fee with an annual $10 registration fee for renewals. Personalized blackout plates cost $60 and can be renewed for an annual $15 registration fee.

Eligible vehicles for Iowa DOT-registered blackout plates include automobiles, motorcycles, multipurpose vehicles, trucks, sport utility vehicles, motor homes, vans and trailers/travel trailers.

Funds generated from the blackout plates, Bishop said, go directly toward the state’s Road Use Tax Fund, which is the major state funding source for construction, maintenance and supervision of the more than 114,000 miles of roads and roughly 25,000 bridges in Iowa.

“So it’s basically — if you want to look at it this way — a ‘voluntary tax,’” Bishop said. “You’re paying for the option to have the blackout plates, but it’s going to fix our roads and bridges, which is so desperately needed here … This is a new funding stream that nobody ever anticipated was going to happen.”

The county, Bishop clarified, does not make money from the blackout plates.

“Each registration renewal we do we get 4 percent,” the county treasurer said. “That stays here in the county. The rest gets transferred out to the state. We get a little bit of money for a title transfer, but all of the taxation goes to the state for the most part.”

Most folks who already have specialty license plates likely won’t replace them with a blackout variant, based on what Bishop and staff at the motor vehicle department have seen thus far. More than likely, people who are making the transition are switching from a plain, state-issued plate.

“And there’s something to think about: That only started in July. So we have eight more months of people getting their registration notices and saying, ‘You know what? I’m just going to go ahead and get blackout plates on my vehicle.’ So we’re only a quarter or a third of the way through this,” Bishop said.

Created by Iowa Prison Industries and manufactured by inmates, the blackout plates were initially hard to come by due to high demand. Bishop said the Jasper County Motor Vehicle Department was well-prepared Day One of the release. Staff never ran short of plates, but they came very close.

“I preemptively ordered 200. And we got all 200. Some counties didn’t think they would have a good turnout so they ordered 40 to 50 plates, and those were gone in the first three days,” Bishop told Newton Daily News. “So the 200 we initially ordered kept us going until the big shipments came in.”

Heather Ross, a clerk at the motor vehicle department located inside the Jasper County Courthouse, noted she had never seen a reaction from Iowa motorists like this before. Why the sudden shift? Ross speculated it could be the updated design of the standard state plate.

“A lot of people don’t like the new design,” Ross said. “But they like (the blackout plates). They’ll come in and they don’t care if it’s $35. They’ll even pay for two or three sets of plates at a time … I didn’t think it would have made a difference.”

Still, staff are astounded by the response thus far. Bishop could recall a similar reaction when drivers could purchase specialty license plates from some of the state’s smaller colleges. Still, that was only “a trickling of people.” Whereas the demand for blackout plates has “been absolutely amazing.”

Curiously enough, the inspiration for the blackout plates originated from one of those smaller colleges. The license plates featuring the school colors of Dordt University in Sioux Center are similar to the design of the blackout counterpart: white letters and numbers to a black background.

Ross said some drivers covered up or outright defaced their Dordt University plates to cover up the top and bottom areas largely reserved for the white banners depicting the private university’s name. The resulting customized plates very much resembled today’s blackout plates.

Citizens can instead pay for the simply designed plate rather than paying a hefty fine. So far, the idea has been paying off. Last month, the Jasper County Motor Vehicle Department took in $1,066,093 for motor vehicle driver’s license transactions. Of that, the county got to keep about $42,108, while the rest was transferred to the state, Bishop said.

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or

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