Most people know exactly what plates we’re talking about — the distinctive green, black and blue Friends of the Smokies plate and the blue and green on yellow “Share the Journey” plate that supports the Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway. There are many more of these stylized plates supporting everything from the Appalachian Trail to college alumni groups, and a lot of the money they bring in is in danger of drying up if lawmakers don’t take action.
In 2011 the General Assembly decided to do away with the plates. The argument was that they were hard for law enforcement to read. A bill was passed that would just allow a small logo for the nonprofit group on the traditional First in Flight state plate that has a white background. This would have completely wiped out the appeal of the specialty plates, and the nonprofits that depend on them began gathering support to repeal the change.
Here’s the new news. After a thorough study of a modified full-color plate that put the identifying letters and numbers on a white rectangular background, the Joint Legislative Transportation Committee, the State Highway Patrol and the Division of Motor Vehicles all gave them a thumbs up. There is no safety or traffic-control reason to take the plates off the road. So with those endorsements, the state House this session passed by a 115-0 margin a bill to repeal the 2011 measure and keep the revised full color plates on the road.
The bill can’t even get a hearing in the Senate. That’s reportedly because in the short session the legislature focuses primarily on tweaking the budget and not taking up new measures. But it has taken up new measures, so that argument doesn’t fly.
This is too important a matter for delay based on vague and unsubstantiated reasoning.
This is first and foremost an economic issue. Businesses are struggling. Government funding for all nonprofits has dried up at the same time individuals have less to give. In Western North Carolina, the Blue Ridge Parkway and Smokies plates alone have contributed more than $6 million to the top tourist attractions in the region. According to a recent study, 9 million visitors spent $818 million in the gateway communities around Great Smoky Mountains National Park and helped create more than 11,000 jobs in 2010. For the Parkway, 14.5 million visitors spent $299.8 million along the scenic road and its surrounding communities, supporting more than 4,008 jobs in the area.
Republicans talk incessantly about how unnecessary government red tape harms the economy. Well, here’s a shining example of just that. A bureaucratic decision to force this plate change will take real money out of the economies in our region.
The plates with the old white background and First in Flight words aren’t mandated until 2015, but the inventory of Friends of the Smokies plates is depleted. That means those who order one now will get the interim design using the white rectangular box but still using the identifying colors.
The Senate needs to get off its rear and take care of this issue. Inaction could do real harm to the WNC tourism economy’s crown jewels. Why take that chance?
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