Peter Callaghan covers the state Legislature for The News Tribune in Tacoma. Blog: thenewstribune.com/politics. Twitter: @CallaghanPeter. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Like bikes? There’s a plate for that.
Lighthouses? Yeah, there’s a plate for that, too.
Serve in the military? Support Gonzaga University? Love your pet? Like our parks? Survive Pearl Harbor?
The Legislature has, over time, created a special license plate that you can buy (or in some instances, such as Pearl Harbor, get for free) to show your affection or affiliation. You may not be able to wear your love on your sleeve, but you are free to wear it on your bumper. And because most of these specialty plates raise more money than it costs to make them, they raise funds for charities including child abuse prevention, music education and even construction of Safeco Field.
The charity plates, 15 of them, raise about $1.8 million a year. At last count, there were 41 different “special-design” license plates available so many that lawmakers tried to set up an approval process in 2003 and then imposed a moratorium on them in 2005. The moratorium doesn’t expire until the summer of 2013, but nearly every year legislators exempt a new plate or two.
This year the state Senate has found two causes so vital as to deserve exemptions. Senate Bill 5990 would create a plate honoring the rhododendron. OK, that one’s obvious. I mean, it’s the state flower and the money raised would help preserve rhododendrons. Oh yeah, and it happens to be sponsored by the chairwoman of the committee that oversees special license plates, Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen (who, by the way, said in 2005 when there were just 25 specialty plates: “We never intended there to be so many different flavors.”)
Then, Senate Bill 6123 was passed to create a new plate for the National Rifle Association, a group so well known that it’s usually enough just to say NRA. But isn’t the NRA a lobbying organization? Don’t they pressure Congress and legislatures to do their bidding? Don’t they support and oppose candidates? Aren’t they among the most controversial political groups in America, adored by some and detested by others?
“I know there are some of you who will say this is a somewhat political organization,” said prime sponsor Sen. Brian Hatfield, D- Raymond. “To them I say, ‘remember where the money is going.’” That would be the $70,000 a year the state estimates the plates would raise for the state wildlife agency’s hunter education and gun safety program. “I would be more than happy to vote for a PETA plate, for example, if the money went for the spaying and neutering of pets,” Hatfield said, in reference to the animal rights group.
But Seattle Sen. Adam Kline played his own game of alphabet soup, wondering if conservatives would be so politically ecumenical. “If we were to have a suggestion that we have an ACLU license plate, how about the AFL-CIO? These organizations have a purpose outside of politics, but they are largely politically involved,” Kline said.
“And when we give a license tag to an organization, we’re giving to the driver and everyone else, too, the appearance of a state imprimatur, of state approval of the organization’s purpose.”
The NRA bill passed the Democrat-controlled Senate 36-13 with 21 Republicans and 15 Democrats voting yes.
I think she was making a joke, but Seattle Sen. Margarita Prentice may have put her finger on why so many Democrats would give a tacit blessing to an organization with which their party has often been at odds. “I don’t know one gun from another, but I have to vote for this because otherwise my brother would kill me,” Prentice said.
The NRA has clout, especially in rural and some surburban districts, so it’s easier to go along than to attract negative attention from the group. But the fact that it has such influence in the political world should have been enough reason for it not to get its logo on a state license plate. Neither should PETA, the ACLU or the AFL-CIO.