Premier Doug Ford is test-driving a plan to eliminate license plate renewal stickers to save motorists up to $120 annually, the Star has learned.

The proposal, which would cost the treasury more than $1 billion a year because there are about 8.5 million vehicles registered in Ontario, has not been finalized.

But it could help the Progressive Conservatives’ re-election campaign in the June 2 vote.

Sources, speaking confidentially in order to discuss internal deliberations, say the plan was well-received by ministers when it was shared with cabinet last week.

Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney’s office was tight-lipped about the measure, which is expected to be introduced through legislation this spring and be in place before the election.

“Our government is considering a number of options to cut costs for Ontarians,” Mulroney’s office said in a carefully worded statement Monday.

With rising inflation and skyrocketing fuel costs, the Tories are looking at ways to save money for pandemic-weary Ontario voters — especially those on fixed incomes, such as seniors.

The change would also dovetail with Ford’s push to build the 60-kilometre Highway 413 between Milton and Vaughan, and the 16.2-kilometre Bradford Bypass linking Highways 400 and 404.

New highways and making it cheaper to drive on them should appeal to commuters in the Greater Toronto Area, home to the ridings that traditionally determine the winner of Ontario elections.

While voters who don’t own motorcycles, cars, SUVs and trucks would not benefit, the Tories emphasize Queen’s Park has partnered with Ottawa and municipalities to spend tens of billions of dollars on public transit.

That includes the TTC’s Ontario Line, the Eglinton Crosstown West LRT, as well as the Scarborough and Yonge North subway extensions.

However, eliminating the license fees, which range from $12 for mopeds to $120 for passenger vehicles in southern Ontario, will be complicated as well as costly.

That’s because the government is still determining how to refund hundreds of millions of dollars to motorists who have already renewed their tags.

“It’s not as easy as you’d think,” said an insider, noting many Ontario residents renew their stickers for the maximum two years at a time for $240.

Motorists would still pay a one-time fee of around $20 for a new license plate, but the annual renewal process would be scrapped, reducing lineups at Service Ontario offices and kiosks.

In 2018, Ford eliminated the controversial Drive Clean program, which required tests and, in some cases, repairs for passenger vehicles.

That initiative was one of the most popular moves of his shaky rookie year as premier.

“This government is reducing the burden on residents and families who own a car,” Ford said at the time.

Launched by former Conservative premier Mike Harris in 1999, Drive Clean became a nuisance for Ontario motorists, since most vehicles passed the emissions tests.

Even though former premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals canceled the $30 test fee in 2017, the province was still footing the $40-million annual smog-testing tab.

Insiders say the government is quietly consulting with police and municipalities to determine the consequences of getting rid of license plate stickers.

A lot of police resources are used pulling over people driving with expired plates. There have been instances of officers using the stickers as an excuse to target Black motorists or other visible minorities.

But the province and municipalities have also relied upon the renewals to collect unpaid traffic and parking fines, so those details still must be worked out.

After the COVID-19 pandemic hit Ontario in March 2020, Ford announced an extension on the expiration dates of all government identification — such as driver’s licenses and OHIP cards — as well as plate stickers.

That was to curb the spread of the virus by preventing people from gathering at crowded Service Ontario outlets.

License plate changes have been a source of political embarrassment for the Tories in the past.

In the 2019 budget, the government announced with much fanfare that the white Ontario plates dating back to 1973 would be changed to Conservative blue.

The new two-tone blue plates, however, were illegible in some light conditions and Ford was forced to abandon them in 2020 after about 145,000 had been manufactured.

Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie

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