ALBANY — It seemed, at first glance, to be an innocuous idea.
Late last month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that he would sponsor a “statewide survey” to allow New York state residents to vote on the design for new license plates, featuring a number of landmarks.
Four of the five options were strikingly similar: On each, the state’s one-word motto, excelsior, is emblazoned across the bottom in capital letters; the color scheme is white and dark blue, with gold accents; and they all include the Statue of Liberty.
Then there was the fifth.
It has no gold accents, and no mention of excelsior — just a simple image of the new bridge over the Hudson River that happens to be named for the governor’s father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo.
The fact that the governor included the image of the Cuomo Bridge — completed in 2018 and hardly a tourist stop — in the competition immediately attracted conspiracy theories on Twitter, including from Nate Silver, the election analyst and editor-in-chief of FiveThirtyEight, who suggested that the survey was “kind of rigged” because the multiple images of the Statue of Liberty would split the vote.
“Certainly there’s a number of landmarks that could be used,” said Brian Kolb, the upstate Republican who serves as minority leader in the state Assembly. “I don’t think the Mario Cuomo Bridge is one of them.”
It will soon be apparent if voters agree: State officials were expected to announce the winning design soon, as voting closed just before midnight on Labor Day.
The result will not stop Republicans, who have been shunted to the sidelines in Albany after disastrous electoral results last year, from pouncing on the issue. They have called it “PlateGate” and have promised hearings, petitions and legislation to remedy it.
But their ire is focused on a different aspect: All license plates more than 10 years old must be replaced with the new design, at a cost of $25 per plate.
If motorists want to keep their plate number, including personalized plates, there would be an additional $20 charge. The fees would take effect April 1, which is both the day of the state’s fiscal year and a famous holiday for fools.
Lawmakers estimate that the fees have the potential for a two-year, $75 million influx of funds for the state, as 3 million drivers will be compelled to replace their plates between April 2020 and April 2022. (The cost of labor for plates, made at a state prison in Auburn, New York, is about $1.)
Mock-ups of plates showing legislators picking taxpayers’ pockets spread on social media, as did a battery of automotive puns.
“It’s highway robbery,” said Sen. James Tedisco, a Republican from a district near Albany.
Cuomo said the new plates were necessary to “eliminate legibility issues” with older plates when detected by red light cameras, cashless tolling systems and other devices.
But his reasoning has failed to placate even members of his own Democratic Party, with whom the governor has had an unsettled relationship. Some accused him of “nickel and diming” New Yorkers and engaging in an “unnecessary cash grab.”
“There are people who are struggling to pay every bill,” said Sen. David Carlucci, a Democrat representing parts of Rockland and Westchester counties. “So another $25 is a big deal.”
Days after the contest was proposed, Carlucci joined with another Democrat, state Sen. James Skoufis, to propose a bill that would bar any new license plate fees so long as the plates were still legible.
But rather than back down, the governor has counterattacked, blaming the Legislature for the fee — noting that it was authorized by legislation dating to 2009, before he was elected to his first term.
“Look, if the Legislature comes back and they want to change the cost of a license plate, they can do that,” Cuomo said in a radio interview on WAMC last week. “They want to change the cost of a fishing license, they can do that. They want to change the tax code, they can do that. They set the fee 10 years ago. You want to reduce it? I’m all in favor of it. But don’t say, as you said, the governor set a $25 fee.”
But for critics of Cuomo’s sometimes bruising political style, the license plate kerfuffle was emblematic of his inability to admit error and his propensity for self-promotion.
“I think honestly the governor just can’t help himself,” said Kolb, the Assembly minority leader, who accused Cuomo of “trying to disguise the license plate fee as a fake competition.”
Sensing rising opposition, Cuomo’s office late last week released a response from the commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles, Mark J.F. Schroeder, who accused legislators of “hypocrisy and misstatements” and “seeking cheap press hits.”
The commissioner then cited a standard by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators that 10 years is “a license plate’s useful life.”
Richard Azzopardi, a senior adviser to Cuomo, also noted that other states have plate replacement programs. Alabama and Kansas, for example, require such changeover every five years.
“The goal of this program is to set up a system that adapts to our changing technology,” Azzopardi said, adding that “the DMV commissioner looks forward to working with the Legislature to come up with a system that meets that goal before April.”
As for the contest itself, Azzopardi was blunt. “We’ll leave the conspiracies to the internet,” he said, “and the fringe politicians who choose to live there.”
Still, Schroeder signaled a willingness to consider a “cost-effective and practical plate-inspection mechanism to determine what plates are still in good operating condition after the 10-year life,” saying he welcomed “the opportunity to be cooperative.”