AUSTIN (KXAN) — Sparked in part by KXAN’s “Risky Rides” investigations, a bill to rid Texas of its paper license plates received final approval in the House on Friday with a vote of 137-0. It now goes to the governor.

If signed into law, metal plates would replace temporary dealer plates. For years, KXAN has investigated what became a $200 million black market. Criminals were able to not only counterfeit paper plates but also infiltrate the Texas Department of Motor Vehicle’s system to print and sell real ones with phony information.

Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, holds up a paper plate that reads "CONCUR" on the House floor May 26, 2023 as he announces the bill's passage (Texas House Photo)
Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, holds up a paper plate that reads “CONCUR” on the House floor May 26, 2023 as he announces the bill’s passage (Texas House Photo)

“This was a major deal,” said Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, as he picked up a piece of paper and turned it over so his fellow lawmakers could see it.

“And with that Mr. Speaker, I concur with senate amendments,” he continued, showing off the paper plate emblazoned with the word “CONCUR.” Goldman introduced House Bill 718.

Texas’ temporary tags are being used to turn vehicles into virtually untraceable “ghost cars” in all 50 states, according to law enforcement, who say even new security features designed to make the paper tags harder to counterfeit haven’t helped.

Last year, KXAN’s reporting helped lead to the resignation of top officials at the TxDMV.

Rep. Craig Goldman holds an altered temporary tag showing a fake car dealership named after him in March. (KXAN Photo/Matt Grant)

Sgt. Jose Escribano with the Travis County Constable’s Office Pct. 3 called the problem the “number one safety issue” for law enforcement nationwide, citing the connection to officer deaths, human smuggling and organized crime.

Escribano has used KXAN’s investigations to train law enforcement throughout the state and in 2021 showed us how easy it was for criminals to produce them by obtaining a paper license plate with KXAN investigative reporter Matt Grant’s address entered as the Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington.

“[Because] you guys went ahead and started on this and didn’t let up, which is a good thing, we’re here now,” Escribano told KXAN in April 2022. “If it wasn’t for that, I’m telling you right now, we wouldn’t be here.”

Altered temporary tags confiscated by law enforcement (Courtesy David Kohler)

Goldman introduced House Bill 718. On his Capitol office desk in March sat a stack of news articles on paper tag fraud, including KXAN’s investigations. He said our reporting helped educate lawmakers, like himself, about the extent of the problem.

“The more we dove into it and the more we’ve seen stories like what you do,” Goldman said, “we realized what a major problem it is.”

“The only fix, in our opinion, is to get rid of paper tags altogether,” he added.

News articles, including KXAN investigations, on Rep. Craig Goldman’s desk. (KXAN Photo/Matt Grant)

This week, Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, told lawmakers the bill’s passage signals “a severe defeat” to organized crime. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, called it a “very important bill.”

If Gov. Greg Abbott signs the bill into law, the TxDMV will have until Dec. 1, 2024 to come up with a rule to implement the change.

“I’m glad that both chambers recognized the importance of paper tags,” said Central Texas Deputy David Kohler, who has been pushing for this change since 2019. “Nothing will ever eliminate fraud but I would like to think, and hope, that the steps the legislature has done this session will do as much deterrent to try to eliminate as much fraud as possible.”

“Thanks to you, and your reporting,” he added, “a lot of education has been disseminated about the reality of what this really was.”

The law would take effect July 1, 2025.

In the meantime, the governor signed HB 914 on May 23. The new law clarifies that temporary license plates are a “government record” when it comes to tampering. Law enforcement says this will make it easier to prosecute tag fraud. That goes into effect Sept. 1.