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Specialty license plates bill seeks expanded lawmaker scrutiny

Tuesday, February 19, 2008 | 4:03 p.m. CST; updated 5:40 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 4, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — A federal court ruling requiring Missouri to issue a "Choose Life" license plate has prompted lawmakers to reconsider the way the state approves specialty vehicle plates.

Legislation presented Tuesday to a House committee would return control over license plate decisions to the full House and Senate, scrapping an administrative procedure adopted four years ago because lawmakers were tired of being inundated with license plate requests from interest groups.

A 2004 law allows interest groups to apply to the Department of Revenue for specialty license plates, if they pay $5,000 and submit the names of 200 potential purchasers of the plates.

But the law allows the license plates to be blocked by any member of the Joint Committee on Transportation Oversight, or by any two senators or five House members who sign a petition against them. That's what happened to the "Choose Life" plate in 2006, which was blocked by Sens. Joan Bray and Rita Heard Days, two Democrats from St. Louis who support abortion rights.

Supporters of the license plate sued, and U.S. District Judge Scott Wright ruled last month that the state must issue the "Choose Life" license plate. The judge said the law is overly vague and broad and fails to guard against "viewpoint discrimination" in violation of constitutional free speech rights.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Neal St. Onge said the ruling means lawmakers are powerless to stop objectionable license plates. Lawmakers raised fears Tuesday that, based on the court ruling, they might also have to allow specialty plates for racist groups or others promoting potentially offensive messages.

"Anybody could apply for any plate, and the state could not really deny it," said St. Onge, R-Ballwin.

St. Onge's legislation would once again require the House and Senate to pass a bill authorizing specialty license plates, just as occurs with any other issue. Supporters would then still have to submit a payment and names of potential supporters to the Revenue Department before the state would manufacture the license plates.

Courts have generally given greater deference to decisions made during the legislative process than by administrative decisions.

The state has 179 specialty license plates, 171 of which were created by specific laws and eight of which were approved under the administrative process outlined in the 2004 law, said Revenue Department spokesman David Griffith.

Those newest plates include ones in support of an autism group, cattle ranchers, military veterans, a hospice organization and University of Arkansas alumni. The "Choose Life" license plate was the only proposal denied because of a legislative objection, Griffith said.

The license plate bill is HB2037.


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