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ACLU lawsuit could end Tennessee specialty plates

Governor favors program based on court's ruling

By Bonna de la Cruz
The Tennessean

Holders of specialty license plates may have to give them up if a court invalidates the popular program this fall, a Knoxville lawmaker said.

The court case, involving the newly approved ''Choose Life'' plate, could mean that Tennesseans no longer will get their pick of 116 specialty tags, including ones for the Tennessee Titans, the University of Tennessee, pet lovers and Radnor Lake.

That could put several groups that have plates in financial distress, including the Friends of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Rep. Jamie Hagood, R-Knoxville, said yesterday.

The Smoky Mountains plate — the most popular of the ones sold by the state, with nearly 20,000 on the road — raised about $600,000 this year, helping save hemlock forests in the park from pesky aphids and sending park rangers into classrooms to give lessons about nature.

Hagood and Sen. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, are making a last-ditch effort to save the license plate program but said that without support from Gov. Phil Bredesen, their efforts would fail before lawmakers adjourn, probably next week.
''We hope the governor reconsiders,'' Hagood said.

At issue is a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, which says that Tennessee's system of issuing specialty license plates is unconstitutional and that the General Assembly enjoys ''unbridled discretion'' to determine which speech the state officially favors.

The lawmakers believe that their proposal to shift approval of specialty plates to the state Safety Department would depoliticize the process and result in dismissal of the court case.

The bill is scheduled for a vote in the Senate Finance Committee today and in the House Budget Subcommittee next week.

''The governor wants the license plate program to die,'' Cohen said after meeting with Bredesen staffers earlier this week.

Bredesen press secretary Lydia Lenker said the governor wants to go in a different direction with legislation on the plates program. He wants the court matter to be resolved, she said, and to come back next year with a comprehensive bill that reflects the recommendations of the courts.

''The governor is committed to protecting the revenue streams for the Great Smoky Mountains, the Arts Commission and other groups,'' she said.

Bredesen does not want plates to be used for political causes and opposes the lawmakers' bill because it ''could very likely result in a greater proliferation of political license plates,'' Lenker said.

Hagood disagreed. She said the proposal put forth by her and Cohen was based on models from other states that had met court muster for being constitutional. It would have minimum requirements, she said. The plates could not be obscene and there would have to be financial commitments from a minimum of 1,000 willing buyers.

Hagood said she was concerned about what would happen if there is a negative court ruling in September or October and the legislature is not able to enact another plate program until next March at the earliest. It's possible, she said, that already issued specialty plates could be invalidated either all at once or when motorists' annual registrations expire. Whether organizations would be able to continue raising money is unclear, she said.

Uncertainty surrounding the program concerns its beneficiaries.

''I hate to see all the good organizations that benefit from this nice program get caught up in all this,'' said Jim Hart, executive director of the Friends of Great Smoky Mountains Park.

He expressed confidence that Bredesen would not do anything that inadvertently harms the park, noting that when the group was founded in 1993, Bredesen made himself a charter member with a $1,000 contribution.

The group gets $31 of each $35 fee paid for a Smoky Mountains plate. If the program is reconfigured, there is no guarantee the group would get as good a deal, Hart said.

''The plates raise money for parks and people like to have them for self-expression about their love for the Smokies,'' said Hart, who has a Smoky Mountains plate on his vehicle.

Proceeds from many of the other specialty plates benefit the Tennessee Arts Commission.

The commission counts on about $3.3 million each year, which in turn is distributed through grants. These grants benefit various arts endeavors, from artists-in-residence programs in schools to the Nashville Symphony, said Rich Boyd, executive director of the Tennessee Arts Commission.

''Especially in rural areas, we're the only exposure some students have to the arts, since it's not included in the core curriculum. We certainly hate to see those programs go away,'' Boyd said.

Cohen said Bredesen's proposal for a new program next year that could restrict political speech could be unconstitutional and land the state back in court.

Lenker declined to respond.

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, said the lawsuit was not filed to abolish specialty plates.

''Our intent is to ensure the state does not engage in viewpoint discrimination, which is what they do each time they vote up or down a particular license plate message,'' Weinberg said.

Two efforts for a ''Pro-Choice'' plate have been unsuccessful in the Senate.

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