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Senator Hopes to Decelerate Move to Special License Plates

Capitol: Lawmaker wants DMV to take responsibility for the popular fund-raising tools away from Legislature, and let CHP make sure designs allow easy reading.


SACRAMENTO — State Sen. Betty Karnette wants to end the Legislature's bumpy love affair with those ubiquitous license plates that depict picturesque Yosemite, the tail of a diving whale and, coming soon, Ronald Reagan.

In all, there are more than 227,000 such special-interest license plates on California cars. Since their 1992 creation as a fund-raising tool for public and nonprofit private organizations, they have raised at least $27 million.

But in Karnette's view, the proliferation of plates to support such causes as the arts, children's health and safety programs, coastal protection, Lake Tahoe and UCLA alumni activities is spinning out of control.

"They are all wonderful, good and fine programs," said Karnette, chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

But she said police have long complained that special-interest plates interfere with officers' and witnesses' ability to identify motor vehicles, a primary function of license plates since they first became mandatory in 1914.

A particular problem is the popular Yosemite model, whose busy, full-plate graphic of the national park tends to obscure the letters and numbers. Police say they have less trouble with partial graphics, whose distinctive logos or symbols are tucked to the side.

Karnette has written a bill that would strip the Legislature of its politically sticky power to approve special-interest license plates and transfer the enterprise to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

"What I'm trying to do is get this back into some kind of control," the Long Beach Democrat said.

The bill would give the DMV guidelines for design, impose anti-discrimination restrictions on organizations that apply to sponsor plates and require that new plates be approved for easy readability by the California Highway Patrol. Full-plate graphics would be banned.

"I've tried to come up with something that would be . . . criteria [for the DMV] so that the Legislature would not have to spend all the time and energy on something that the Legislature doesn't need to be doing," she said.

But it is uncertain whether the Legislature, historically reluctant to surrender any of its powers, will go along. Further, aides say Gov. Gray Davis has not decided whether he will support what Karnette agreed is a "political hot potato."

Florence L. Green, executive director of the California Assn. of Nonprofits, whose membership includes 2,000 organizations, including license plate sponsors, supports the bill.

The measure, SB 1329, would not apply to the cute, clever and sometimes sappy "vanity" plates for average motorists, "recognition" tags that typically honor military veterans, or "functional" plates that identify particular occupations, including legislators and media photographers.

Before starting to approve special-interest plates for fund-raising purposes, the Legislature had created specialized plates chiefly to honor or recognize an assortment of people and events, including veterans, amateur radio operators and honorary members of the consular corps.

But former Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar), longtime chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee whose own car has Yosemite plates, recalled that the special-recognition plates quickly evolved into something quite different.

"There was a sense that California could do better than a simple blue and white license plate," he said. "Then there became a political agenda and then a fund-raising agenda. . . . It's gotten out of hand."

Amid a rising demand in the Legislature for more specialized plates, the Senate in 1994--led by then-Sen. Quentin Kopp (I-San Francisco), chairman of the Transportation Committee--imposed a moratorium on creation of new license plates. The moratorium lasted until 1999, but there were exceptions.

Kopp sided with police opposition to creating new plates and challenged as a "misguided myth" the belief that the program was a handsome moneymaker for sponsoring organizations.

"But historically, it was monkey see, monkey do," said Kopp, now a Superior Court judge.

Last year, Karnette succeeded Kopp as head of the Transportation Committee and attempted to enforce the moratorium. She was overcome by major political forces, including Nancy Reagan, who lobbied for the bill to create a Ronald Reagan Library license plate with well-placed telephone calls to key legislators. The bill passed last summer.

Like most other sponsoring organizations, the Reagan library foundation must submit 5,000 applications and fees before the DMV will put the Reagan plate on the market. A library spokesman said "we are doing well," and officials expect to file the applications before a December deadline.

Karnette's reform bill has cleared her Transportation Committee and faces another hearing in the Appropriations Committee, along with bills that would establish special plates for Rotary International, the Girl Scouts, a Masonic Order scholarship fund and the Boy Scouts.

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