By JACK ELLIOTT JR.
JACKSON — Mississippi lawmakers are toying with approving almost 40 new specialty car tags in 2012 — one of the largest such authorizations in recent years.
While motorists complain about the high costs of Mississippi license plates, about 560,000 of them have shelled out an extra $30 or more for a variety of specialty tags so far. This year, legislators are being asked to authorize new tags to support local schools, medical and fraternal organizations, swimmers, golfers and the Singing Brakeman.
Born in Meridian in 1897, Jimmie Rodgers was known as the "Singing Brakeman" for his work on the railroad. He recorded more than 120 songs, starting in 1927, and was also called the "Father of Country Music." He died in 1933.
Rodgers has been honored with an annual festival in Meridian since 1953, and it attracts thousands of visitors. The Jimmie Rodgers Memorial Museum opened in the city in 1996.
Betty Lou Jones, president of the Jimmie Rodgers Foundation, expects the specialty car tag to pay tribute to Rodgers and bring money into the museum. Jones said the tag design will probably be of Rodgers holding a guitar.
"We are always in need of money as any museum," Jones said.
"Mississippi is known as the birthplace of American music," she said. "Jimmie Rodgers is one of the reasons we have that title. He was the most influential Mississippian in the musical world. The tag will create interest in Jimmie Rodgers and more people will come to love his music like we do."
Other specialty tags in the 2012 legislation include ones for the Mississippi Golf Association, supporters of the Tuskegee Airmen, cystic fibrosis awareness, the Mississippi Swimming Association, private and commercial pilots and a dozen school systems.
Mississippi's' flirtation with specialty license plates dates back to 1942, when $15 would get an amateur radio operator a tag with his official call letters rather than usual combinations of numbers and letters.
Mississippi had 2.67 million tag registrations for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2011. State Department of Revenue records show that more than 640,000 were classified as special tags, and 80,573 were classified as vanity tags with people's names or phrases like TAG2HI.
Mississippi has now more than six dozen specialty tags, touting everything from wildlife conservation to public and private universities. There are tags for Purple Heart winners, firefighters and law enforcement officers, even tags for legislators and ex-governors.
Drivers pay extra fees for specialty tags, and money is routed to various programs. The wildlife tags, for instance, bring money for wildlife conservation. The Mississippi Burn Care Fund collects $1 off each specialty tag.
The competition for those dollars is fierce as lawmakers annually expand the offerings. Organizations rally the faithful because before a design can be produced, 300 tags must be sold in advance.
University and college tags were the most popular during the past fiscal year with more than 45,000; followed by wildlife tags at more than 30,000; and retired military at more than 24,000, records showed.
The deer tag was the most popular with 8,274, followed by the hummingbird with 5,096.
Mississippi State University at 15,573 topped the University of Mississippi's 14,030 among the universities.
Among the retired military, the Air Force, with 7,381, led the Army, with 6,938.
Records show there were 8,598 "Choose Life" tags and 10,814 NASCAR tags.
Department of Revenue figures show disbursements from the sale of specialty tags totaled $4.2 million. Total disbursements for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2011, were $115.9 million, including money paid to transportation programs, state and county treasuries, trauma care and burn care.