The General Assembly’s renewal of the specialty license plates for North Carolina drivers surprised many only because it seemed such a no-brainer that it was curious there was even a debate. Thank goodness lawmakers saw the light.
Let’s take a look at what was almost undone by our state legislators: a program that produces — without any extra public spending — millions of dollars for some of North Carolina’s most prominent nonprofits, providing them with money to invest in some of the of the state’s treasures. That list includes coastal estuaries and sea turtles along with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Appalachian Trail.
Colorful specialty license plates have been spared the gallows thanks to a bill passed in the final hours of the General Assembly last week.
State senators from the mountain region — and we’re especially talking about those representing the southwest, Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, and Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Spruce Pine — need to pull out all stops to save the colorful license plates that put money directly into their districts and benefit their constituents.
An effort to save those colorful specialty license plates has stalled in the N.C. Senate, which seems reluctant to take a bill up that would spare the popular plates.
Supporters of the specialty plates have rallied to save them from the chopping block. Lawmakers last year passed a bill that would gut the iconic plates, stripping them of their full color images such as the black bear, the scenic
By Holly Demuth
What does your car believe in? Here in Western North Carolina, many people choose to express their love of the Smokies, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Appalachian Trail, state parks, and the elk and ducks with their full color license plates. But soon that opportunity to show your support will not exist in its current form.
Full color license plates are slated to be taken off the road in 2015, according to North Carolina law. The plates that financially support attractions that are at the core of much of Western North Carolina’s travel and tourism economy, that provide more than 1 million voluntary dollars pumped into Western North Carolina in 2011 — gone. The program that made the state more than $800,000 in non-tax dollars in 2011 — eliminated.
The attractive Friends of the Smokies plate has helped generate since its inception more than $2.6 million to enhance Great Smoky Mountains National Park — one license plate at a time. Among many projects, these plates funded history exhibits at the new Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, where visitation has increased 80 percent since its grand opening last year. It also supports the ongoing conservation of elk herds in Cataloochee Valley, which draw hundreds of thousands of visitors annually.
Improving Great Smoky Mountains National Park makes financial sense for North Carolina. In 2010 alone, more than 9 million park visitors spent $818 million in surrounding communities and helped create more than 14,000 jobs.
Laws can be changed. It takes a great effort, but it can happen. Fortunately, there is hope that our state legislators will repeal the provision when they go back to Raleigh this year.
A recent report from the N.C. Department of Transportation recommends continuing the full color plate program. The state Highway Patrol agrees. And a legislative study committee recently recommended that the General Assembly repeal the 2015 sunset.
Let’s hope that our elected representatives are listening.
Eliminating North Carolina’s popular full-color license plate program will hurt the state’s travel and tourism economy, and beloved tourist destinations like Great Smoky Mountains National Park without improving public safety.
People who love these special places and business who benefit from them can help change the law. Ask your state elected officials to protect this important revenue source and support repealing the sunset on the North Carolina full-color specialty license plate program. More information can be found at www.friendsofthesmokies.org.
While we’re at it, let’s do all we can to support these special resources and show Raleigh what an effective program it is – if you don’t have a full-color plate yet, please go out and purchase one.
More than a decade ago, under former Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida became the first state to approve a “Choose Life” specialty plate. Since then, similar plates have been OK’d in more than two-dozen states.
Supporters view them as a means to mass-market adoption to mothers who might otherwise abort; detractors believe the plates are government-endorsed attacks on abortion rights and a woman’s right to choose.
Thanks to North Carolina House Bill 289, passed earlier this year by a Republican-dominated state General Assembly and signed into law by avowedly pro-choice Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue, motorists around North Carolina can now sport the “Choose Life” message on a specialty license plate.
Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, was among Democrats who voted against the bill, introduced by Rep. Mitch Gillespie, R-Marion. Gillespie was out of the country last week; a message left at his home went unreturned by press time Tuesday.
Rapp described Gillespie’s bill as “crafty,” one that satisfied several conservative goals and ambitions: “Choose Life” plates were approved, and by adding groups to the bill such as the Boy Scouts, Fox Hunting and the National Wild Turkey Federation, Democrats such as Rapp who stood in opposition can, in upcoming elections, be painted as “against Boy Scouts,” apple pie and the American flag, the veteran lawmaker said.
“We have, historically, not let issue plates be issued,” Rapp said. “We didn’t want North Carolina cars to become rolling billboards for political issues.”
Drivers can opt for the “Choose Life” plates for a $25 extra annual fee. Nonprofit pregnancy counseling centers opposed to abortion get $15 from each plate sold.
As part of House Bill 289, started in 2015, state specialty plates — including the “Choose Life” plates — must all change to meet a uniform template approved by various law enforcement agencies, including the state Highway Patrol.
Therein lies the next “crafty” machination of state Republicans, according to Rapp. Law enforcement’s concerns were truly legitimate, he said, “and there was a public safety issue, and true cause for concern.”
The new law will gut the attractive full-color plate designs and instead relegate a logo for the organization to one corner of the plate, leaving plate numbers easily seen and the state of origin easy to ascertain. There are 216 specialty plates, but fewer than 30 boast the full-color designs such as Friends of the Smokies.
But in the debate, the particularly popular specialty plates such as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway plates, “were held hostage over whether to let the right-to-life plates be in the list of specialty plates,” Rapp said.
“It is a much bigger issue than just GSMNP plates and Blue Ridge Parkway plates,” Rapp said of the behind-the-scenes political fight over what messages should and should not be allowed on license plates.
N.C. Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, agreed. He said that Republicans efforts to get the Choose Life plates have potentially come at the steep cost of the public’s support for good causes such as the Smokies and the parkway.
“That money (raised) really helps these organizations,” Haire said.
Rapp believes there is a solution, though whether he can get it through the Republican-dominated House is debatable. Rapp wants certain groups, particularly the Friends of the Smokies and the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, exempted from the new rules. That would allow the nonprofits to continue marketing the full-colored plates used now.
“They helped to get this whole thing started to begin with,” Rapp said, “and I think they should get some preferential treatment. We’ve got to try to find a way around this — that’s a huge revenue source for these groups during these times of revenue cuts, and they need these sources of revenue more than ever.”
The political slugfest that took place over House Bill 289, Republicans thwarted efforts by Democrats to, in response to the Choose Life plates, add a license plate with the abortion rights message “Respect Choice.”
In September, The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation filed a lawsuit seeking the specialty license plate supporting a woman’s right to reproductive freedom. The lawsuit alleges that North Carolina is engaging in “unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination” in violation of the First Amendment by allowing pro-life but not pro-choice license plates.
— By Quintin Ellison
• Friends of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
• Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation
• Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation
• Friends of the Appalachian Trail
• NC Coastal Federation
• In God We Trust
• Stock Car Racing Theme
• Buddy Pelletier Surfing Foundation
• Guilford Battleground Company
• National Wild Turkey Federation
• North Carolina Aquarium Society
• First in Forestry
• North Carolina Wildlife Habitat Foundation
• N.C. Trout Unlimited
• Ducks Unlimited
• Lung Cancer Research
• N.C. State Parks
• Support Our Troops
• U.S. Equine Rescue League
• Fox Hunting
• Back Country Horsemen of North Carolina
• Home Care and Hospice
• N.C. Tennis Foundation
• AIDS Awareness
• Donate Life
• Farmland Preservation
• Travel and Tourism
• Battle of Kings Mountain
• N.C. Civil War
• North Carolina Zoological Society
• United States Service Academy
• Carolina Raptor Center
• Carolinas Credit Union Foundation
• North Carolina State Flag
• N.C. Mining
• Coastal Land Trust
• ARTS NC
• Choose Life
• N.C. Green Industry Council
• N.C. Horse Council
• Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center
Dr. Jessica Ange of Sylva enjoys sporting on the back of her Subaru Outback the colorful black and green Great Smoky Mountains National Park license plate, with its emblematic black bear head and background of green mountain peaks.
She’s honest enough to admit her enjoyment comes not just with supporting the Smokies; it’s also simple fact that the plate looks really cool. And, Ange isn’t sure if she would have paid the extra $30 a year, at least originally, if the plates were any less striking.
“Since I’ve already gotten one of the park plates, I might now continue on to support such a good cause,” Ange said. “So that’s part of the allure — but I don’t know if I would have initiated getting one to begin with if the plates were less colorful.”
That’s a choice Ange might soon have to make, however, because of a new law that attempts to standardize the state’s specialty plates to a uniform template.
The Smokies specialty license plate costs motorists such as Ange an extra fee of $30 per year. Of the fee, $20 goes to Friends of the Smokies to support efforts to preserve and protect the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The remaining $10 goes into the Special Registration Plate Account, which supports the following: issues and handling of special plates, N.C. State Visitors Centers, travel and tourism advertising, highway beautification and travel accessibility for disabled people.
Friends members worry new regulations for special license plates could squelch sales. A new state law will eliminate the full-color designs for specialty plates. Instead, an emblem for the group will be shoehorned into one small corner of the plate, with just room to accommodate a logo.
The new law starts in 2015. But, in actuality, new designs will hit the roads when the existing inventory of specialty plates runs out — which has happened, or is about to happen, according to Marge Howell, spokeswoman for the state Division of Motor Vehicles.
Holly Demuth, North Carolina Director of the Friends of the Smokies, said she understands that the stock for the bear license plates has indeed run dry, and that sales have been suspended.
The Friends group is working with DMV on a transitional-plate design — one that isn’t quite as austere as the new 2015 law would require. It would still feature a black bear, but the plate is less colorful than the current design. The hybrid design will fill the gap until 2015, when the future stark reality of the state’s specialty license plates becomes official.
Last year alone, the sale of specialty plates raised $385,000 for Friends of the Smokies, said Friends board member Steve Woody. All of the money raised was spent on the North Carolina side of the park, including the Parks as Classrooms project, the new Oconaluftee Visitor Center displays, the Appalachian Highlands Learning Center at Purchase Knob, helping fund the hemlock woolly adelgid battle and even to help bring back elk into Cataloochee, Woody said.
“It was a surprise to us when the state said it wanted to change the plate,” Woody said. “It had been approved by both the Highway Patrol and the manufacturer.”
Woody said surveys have shown 40 percent of sales are by people “who buy because they like the plate.”
Pat Steinbrueck of Sylva said that when she and husband, Steve, moved here from Pennsylvania a few years ago, the colorful Smokies plate “caught my eye right away — it seemed the perfect opportunity to have a pretty plate and support a good cause.”
Several of the nonprofit groups with specialty plates in the mountains have formed a coalition to lobby legislators to reconsider gutting the plate design.
“We are trying to convince the people in Raleigh to keep them the way they are,” said Joyce Cooper, a member of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “I think if they take the color off of them it will destroy the beauty and the interest that people have. They are so attractive, that’s what makes people want to have them.”
The cool factor of sporting a specialty plate indeed seems to be a driver for those buying them. Case in point: after the Smokies redesigned its original specialty license plate — a turquoise and pink color scheme with a silhouette of trees — to the iconic black bear design, sales skyrocketed. Friends of the Smokies saw the number of its license plates on the road increase by more than 50 percent after introducing the new design.
The Friends plate, launched in 2000, was the first in a subsequent explosion of colorful specialty license plates in the state. In addition to “First in Flight” standard plates, North Carolina issues 216 other specialty plates, including a hiker on the Appalachian Trail plate, a scenic mountain road on the Blue Ridge Parkway plate, and an elk plate that supports the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The problem comes with some of the 25 full background specialty plates now decorating cars on North Carolina’s roads and highways: Highway Patrol troopers have said some of the plates are difficult to read, increasing the difficulty of keeping the motoring public safe.
Yet this year, the legislature approved an additional 25 or so full-color plates — the same lawmakers, and in the same bill, that phases out full-color plates.
Micah McClure, a designer for The Smoky Mountain News, designed the popular black bear Smokies plate. It replaced the older plate which sported pink and turquoise curly-cue letters. He’s attempting now to design the “transitional” plate. McClure said that it’s not an impossible task to create a beautiful specialty tag and meet law enforcement needs, too.
Color choice is critical, he said, as is contrast and not “making it too busy” with too many graphic elements. McClure said that he’d noticed during the weekend a N.C. Tennis Foundation specialty license plate, with dark blue lettering on a dark green background, and understood instantly why law enforcement officers have been complaining.
“There has to be legibility for law enforcement,” McClure said, “You couldn’t read it. But if the contrast is there, then there shouldn’t be a problem.”
The Parkway plate has navy lettering on a yellow background, for example. That color contrast makes it is easy to read, as is the Smokies’ — dark blue on light green.
Kate Dixon, executive director of the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, said getting a specialty license plate approved in North Carolina proved “an incredible political process” to undergo. That Friends group wanted one of the full-color plate designs. But Dixon was told the state wasn’t approving any more of those, and the only design she could have was the new kind with a tiny logo in the corner.
“It was disappointing to us,” Dixon said.
It was also quite confusing to Dixon, because the state did indeed approve full-color plates for certain groups — around 25 or so — including plates for anti-abortion groups, N.C. Mining and Carolinas Credit Union Association.
The Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail has started selling its plate already, but it must obtain 300 prepaid applications before the DMV will start manufacturing them, a job that is done by prisoners in state correctional facilities.
Friends of the Smokies
• raised $2.5 million since 2000 in N.C.
• almost 20,000 plates on the road.
Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation
• raised $2.9 million since 2004
• 27,000 plates on the road.
Appalachian Trail Conservancy
• $586,000 since 2004
• more than 5,000 plates on the road.
• Need to sell 300 before the state will manufacture and distribute; have sold about 150 since 2004. No plates on the road.
• More than 4,000 plates on the road
• Raised more than $200,000 since 2003
Friends of Great Smoky Mountains National Park received a record $385,000 from drivers sporting the special “black bear” license plate program in 2009 — the park’s 75th anniversary year.
Support from North Carolinians for the Smokies’ license plates increased $46,720 over 2008, an impressive 12 percent gain.
“Every person who goes to their local license plate agency office and purchases a Smokies plate is helping the park,” said Holly Demuth, the new director of the North Carolina office of Friends of the Smokies. “The support for the Smokies from North Carolinians is robust. Everywhere you look, you see the bear tag.”
Of the extra $30 annual fee for the specialty tag, $20 goes to Friends of the Smokies to support projects and programs on the North Carolina side of the park. Launched in 1999, the Smokies license plate has now raised a grand total of more than $1.8 million.
With these funds, Friends of the Smokies is supporting a wide variety of significant projects and programs in 2009:
• Providing educational programs for local schoolchildren
• Protecting the park’s hemlock forests from the deadly hemlock woolly adelgid.
• Supporting the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center near Maggie Valley.
• Interpreting the area’s cultural history through new exhibits at the new Oconaluftee Visitor Center.
• Creating a permanent legacy of improvements to trails through the Trails Forever endowment.
“Great Smoky Mountains National Park is fortunate to have such strong support from its neighboring states,” said Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson. “The specialty license plates are one of the most visible signs of this affinity. After 75 years, the park still has much work to do with conservation, education, trail improvements, and more. We hope people will continue to contribute one plate at a time.”
www.friendsofthesmokies.org or 828.452.0720.
When George Ivey broached the idea of a new specialty license plate design for Friends of the Smokies, feedback on the best image to symbolize the park ran the gamut: a scenic vista, a log cabin, the rare hellbender salamander, even slime molds.
Micah McClure, a graphic designer in Waynesville, faced a daunting task when asked to redesign the Friends of the Smokies license plate in a way that would capture the essence of America’s most visited national park.