Rep. Craig Goldman holds a metal license plate honoring his bill, HB 718. (KXAN Photo/Matt Grant)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Say goodbye to paper license plates — just not yet.

Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill into law Monday that puts the brakes on Texas’ paper license plate problem by tearing up the current system. The new law replaces all paper tags with metal ones. It goes into effect July 1, 2025.

“Feel relieved and, no, didn’t feel this day would come,” said Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, who introduced HB 718, which will eliminate all paper license plates in the state. “Bills this big, that make fundamental change in this state, don’t normally pass the very first session that you file them. So, huge relief.”

The move caps more than six years of KXAN’s “Risky Rides” investigations, and an equally-long fight spearheaded by law enforcement in Central Texas to stop what has ballooned into a $200 million black market impacting all 50 states. Goldman called it a “major problem.”

Under the new law:

  • Car dealers will be required to issue metal license plates, from the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, when a vehicle is sold.
  • At a cost of $10, metal license plates will be issued instead of the current paper one-trip and 30-day temporary permits.
  • The new law also ensures dealers are able to obtain, in advance, a sufficient amount of plates in order to sell vehicles “without an unreasonable disruption of business due to the unavailability of license plates.”
  • The TxDMV is tasked with establishing an expedited process, as well.
  • The TxDMV has until Dec. 1, 2024 to come up with a rule to implement the change.
From left to right: Sgt. Jose Escribano, Rep. Cole Hefner, Rep. Craig Goldman and Central Texas deputy David Kohler (Courtesy Jose Escribano)
From left to right: Sgt. Jose Escribano, Rep. Cole Hefner, Rep. Craig Goldman and Central Texas deputy David Kohler (Courtesy Jose Escribano)

‘If it wasn’t for you exposing it’

A years-long series of KXAN investigations revealed criminals are not only counterfeiting dealer tags but also infiltrating the TxDMV system to print and sell real ones, with phony information, by posing as car dealers. Fraudulently-obtained tags are used to turn vehicles into virtually untraceable “ghost cars.”

Two top officials with the TxDMV resigned last year amid the paper plate scandal, including then-executive director Whitney Brewster. In late 2022, the TxDMV introduced a redesign of paper tags touting new enhanced security features, like watermarks and QR codes.

Despite the change, Goldman said he was given a counterfeit copy of a paper plate, with the new security features meant to prevent fraud, “within one hour” of its launch. It confirmed his belief that the only way to “fix” the paper license plate problem is to “get rid of paper tags altogether,” he previously told KXAN.

After he introduced HB 718, Goldman said he was contacted by law enforcement “all across the state” who thanked him. Among the first to support the bill was Sgt. Jose Escribano with the Travis County Constable’s Office Pct. 3.

In 2017, Escribano warned KXAN paper license plates were being forged “and you’re not the wiser.”

Since then, he’s led the fight statewide to stop the proliferation of bogus tags, which he and other law enforcement say are connected to organized crime, human smuggling, drug running and other crimes large and small.

Escribano said he’s “very excited” to finally see the culmination of his efforts.

“It’s going to, in an instance, make it a lot safer out there,” Escribano said of the new law and the TxDMV requirement passed last year to fingerprint all car dealers. “They’re not going to be able to hide.”

Travis County Constable Pct. 3 Stacy Suits (center left), Rep. Craig Goldman (center), Sgt. Jose Escribano (center right) pose with a copy of HB 718. (Courtesy Sgt. Jose Escribano)

While the new law won’t kick in for another two years, in the meantime, Abbott signed HB 914, introduced by Rep. Cole Hefner, R-Mount Pleasant. The bill clarifies temporary license plates are a “government record.” Law enforcement officials said this will make it easier to prosecute tag fraud with tampering charges. The law goes into effect Sept. 1.

“I didn’t think they were going to eliminate all paper tags,” Escribano told KXAN after the bill was sent to the governor. “I thought that was going to be the fight to the finish. I really did.”

“If it wasn’t for you guys exposing it, we’d still be in the trenches fighting,” he added. “But, you know how it is, you guys are the Kryptonite.”

Illegal temporary tags confiscated in Austin. (Photo courtesy: Travis County Constable Pct. 3)

Escribano has used our reporting to educate and train law enforcement across the state. Goldman said news reports, including KXAN’s investigations, helped inspire his bill and educate lawmakers.

“Credit absolutely goes to investigative reporters, reporters like you and your station. … you’ve been doing this for years reporting on fake paper tags,” Goldman said. “The more the general public heard about the paper tags — and now, I have 149 colleagues who drive around the state and say, ‘Every time I see a fake paper tag I think of you,’ — the same credit goes to y’all for informing the public and keeping us aware of problems in the state. So, there’s no question, that was a major part of it and component of it as well.”

KXAN’s “Risky Rides” investigation was used to train Lakeway Police in 2022. (KXAN Photo/Matt Grant)

This session, Goldman handed out “real, fake” paper license plates, registered to state lawmakers, that he said he wanted to use to show how easy they are to produce. Escribano recorded the moment on his cell phone.

“Oh, that’s beautiful,” Escribano said laughing as he watched.

“I think having fake tags for everybody with their names on it as a prop, if you will, on their desk the day the bill was on the floor woke everybody up to how easy it was to make fake paper plates,” Goldman said, reflecting back.

In May, when Goldman agreed to the Senate’s changes, sending the bill to the governor, he did so holding a fake paper license plate that read: “CONCUR.”

“That was good staffing and quick work in order to turn that around so quick,” he said, laughing.

At his Capitol office, he showed us a new, metal license plate that was gifted to him reading: “HB718.”

TxDMV ‘beginning the process of planning’

Rep. Craig Goldman agreed to Senate changes with a fake paper license plate that read “CONCUR.” (Courtesy Texas Legislature Online)

HB 718 overwhelmingly passed both chambers before Abbott signed it. Now, the TxDMV said it’s already “beginning the process” to plan and implement the new law.

“The Texas Department of Motor Vehicles worked with legislative offices and stakeholder communities throughout the development of House Bill 718,” TxDMV spokesperson Adam Shaivitz said. “The department appreciates the numerous amendments and clarifications that were made to address various industry and operational needs while accomplishing the intended goal of the legislation.”

The 2025 deadline gives the TxDMV time to implement the new law and allows the legislature to make any necessary “tweaks” to the law during the next session before it goes into effect, Goldman said.

As for Escribano, not a day goes by when he said he doesn’t see illegal paper tags on our roads. Now, he thinks to himself: “Soon, you will be gone.” But soon is still two years away. Until then, Texas’ paper plate problem isn’t going away.

“We’re still seeing them. They’re still using them for smuggling, they’re still using them to traffic people, they’re still using them to commit crimes. But there’s an end game now,” he said. “It’s a long road. It’s been a very, very long road. We have many investigations. It’s not over yet.”