Lawmakers to examine proliferation of specialty plates

By LUCAS L. JOHNSON II Associated Press Writer

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Tennessee lawmakers say they share Gov. Phil Bredesen's concerns over the proliferation of specialty license plates, which have grown to more than a hundred since they began two decades ago.

Earlier this week, the governor allowed a bill creating 17 more specialty plates to become law without his signature.

"I am allowing this bill to become law ... in light of the broader concerns I have expressed over the past several years regarding the unrestrained proliferation of specialty license plates," he wrote in a letter. "I continue to urge the General Assembly to address this broader issue."

House Transportation Chairman Phillip Pinion said the specialty plates will be among issues taken up this summer by a joint House and Senate study committee.

The Union City Democrat co-sponsored the legislation that Bredesen wouldn't sign, but he acknowledges specialty plates may be getting a bit out of hand.

"We've got too many," he said. "If the bears have one, then you've got to get one for the wildcats."

The state's specialty plates program began 20 years ago as a way to help fund the Tennessee Arts Commission, which receives 40 percent of the additional $35 costs for the plates.

Tennessee has about 130 specialty plates, with different groups receiving proceeds. The most popular salutes the Tennessee Titans football team, but there are others for Korean War veterans, the Smokies and the Tennessee Walking Horse.

A "Choose Life" anti-abortion license plate became available last year after surviving a legal challenge.

Any new plate must get 1,000 pre-orders before it can go into production. So some of those approved during the recent session - which includes salutes to women veterans and the Natchez Trace Parkway - may not take effect if they don't get enough orders.

Pinion attempted to address the proliferation issue about three years ago when he sponsored a bill that would require the state to have a uniform plate with one-third of its surface reserved for any specialty cause. A decal would be placed in that area.

Pinion said he had support for the measure in the House but not in the Senate. One of those opposed to the idea was former Democratic Sen. Steve Cohen of Memphis, the original sponsor of the specialty plates legislation.

"The plates should be as attractive as possible," Cohen, now a congressman, said recently. "If you change the plates, they become less attractive, which means you lose money."

However, some lawmakers say they're more concerned the specialty plates may pose a safety issue than how they look. Pinion said some Tennessee Highway Patrol officers have said the numerous designs make it tough to determine if a specialty plate is from Tennessee.

"I think we should make sure that we're not for a good cause impeding upon law enforcement to appropriately monitor the highways," said Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson. "I'm not opposed to a decal."

Pinion said he's not giving up on his legislation.

"I'm going to bring it back this next year," he said. "This way, everybody can still support their group and we don't have so many license plates."

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)