Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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September 11, 2012

License plates spark debates in states

By Maureen Hayden

CNHI News Service

INDIANAPOLIS — Who would have thought the back of your car could become a free speech battleground?

Probably not the folks in Florida who, in 1987, started the trend of using state-issued specialty license plates to raise money for special causes.

Florida thought it was a good idea to honor the astronauts who had died in the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster by building a memorial to them. The state created and sold the special Challenger plate to fund it, raising millions of dollars for the project.

That triggered other states to create a mechanism for state-issued license plates to become sources of revenue for projects beyond the states’ usual scope.

Now, for an extra fee of $40 beyond what it costs to license your vehicle, Indiana drivers can pick from more than 100 state-issued specialty license plates to express their support for organizations that range from the National Rifle Association to the University of Notre Dame.

They’re popular: Almost a half-million Hoosiers bought specialty license plates last year, raising millions of dollars for their favorite causes.

The problem, though, arises when someone doesn’t like the cause. Last year, some conservative lawmakers in the Indiana Legislature tried to eliminate a specialty plate for a gay youth group. Their push failed, but the Bureau of Motor Vehicles later stripped the plates from the group and two other organizations, saying they wrongly traded low-digit plates for contributions. Those groups contend the practice is common.

In South Carolina, for example, the Legislature recently approved a religious specialty license plate, with the slogan “I believe” and the image of a cross over a stained-glass window. The plate is being challenged in court by a group that promotes the separation of church and state.

Last year, the Arizona Legislature created a “Don’t Tread on Me” special license plate that raises money for tea party groups in the state. Some of the strongest protests came from tea party members themselves, who objected to the government bureaucracy created to dole out the dollars.

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