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Front Page - Friday, August 16, 2019

Tricked out license plates over the top

It may be the one thing Tennessee legislators enjoy more than designating official state dogs, rocks and such: authorizing new specialty license plates.

Before the recent General Assembly session, the state was already offering more than 100 plate options for private vehicles.

Quite a lot, you might think. Enough, even.

“Not enough!” lawmakers decided.

And so they set about rubber-stamping more, including for Friends of Shelby Park and Bottoms, Greene County School System, Knights of Columbus, Jackson State University, Tennessee Voices for Victims, Germantown Charity Horse Show, Whitehaven High School and Tennis Memphis.

That’s not all of them. But you get the picture.

One reason legislators may find it a relatively painless action is the fact that the specialty plates are moneymakers. They carry a $35 extra fee, a designated (and varying) portion of which goes to the beneficiary organizations and the rest to the Tennessee Arts Commission and the State Highway Fund.

For example, the specialty plate the Department of Revenue listed as most popular in 2018, Friends of the Smokies, delivered almost $455,000 during the year for projects and programs in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It has more than 13,000 registrations.

I think you would agree the Smokies offering is a handsome plate, and its popularity has apparently grown since it recently added a silhouette of a black bear against the sunset design. The Automobile License Plate Collector’s Association ranked it No. 6 in its best plate contest for 2018.

The rest of the Tennessee Top 10 specialty plates, in order:  American Eagle Foundation; Tennessee Agriculture; Fish and Wildlife Species; Breast Cancer Awareness; St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital; Animal Friendly; Choose Life; Tennessee Titans; and Tennessee Nurses Foundation.

Honesty compels me to say that not all of those others are handsome plates. Prudence compels me not to name them.

But, obviously, people don’t necessarily select a plate based on how attractive it looks. If they did, more people would have the Dolly Foundation plate, which features a likeness of Dolly Parton. Can’t go wrong with Dolly.

Other favorites of mine are plates for Autism Awareness, Tennessee State Parks, Watchable Wildlife and the East Tennessee Children’s Hospital. You can choose your own favorites by going to tn.gov/revenue and following links to license plates.

And, OK, here are a couple I don’t like:

The Tennessee Arts Commission’s fish tag, which looks like the Don Knotts fish  character in the movie “The Incredible Mr. Limpet,” minus glasses.

And the plate for the Friends of the Sycamore Shoals Historic Area, which features a coiled rattlesnake with the “Don’t Tread on Me” legend, a Revolutionary War standard that has since been appropriated by Tea Party supporters. It doesn’t even identify the beneficiary, which strikes me as curious.

Fiscal inducements notwithstanding, there are specialty plate critics – including some legislators – who say they don’t believe that lawmakers ought to be in the business of creating state-approved mini-billboards for display on vehicles.

Two Memphis lawmakers, Sen. Sara Kyle and Rep. G.A. Hardaway, have a beef with one specific mini-billboard: They introduced bills in the past session that would have ended plates for the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

You would recognize that plate as the one that – Surprise! – includes the Confederate battle flag. A fiscal report for the bills estimated there are 3,380 on the road.

“Having the Confederate flag displayed on our state-issued license plates is something I have been trying to change since 2015,” Kyle wrote in an email message.  

“Anytime we protect divisive symbols of the past, we empower those who hate.”

Kyle said that former Gov. Bill Haslam had favored removing the flag, but “we never seemed to garner enough support in the Republican-controlled General Assembly to move the legislation forward.”

Did I mention that Kyle and Hardaway are Democrats?

Kyle said she plans to renew her efforts in the next session.

“It will take real leadership from our current governor and General Assembly to move these symbols of hate off our roadways,” she said.

Which is another way of saying: Fat chance.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville.