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Campaign to save specialty plates hits road block in the Senate

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

Blue Ridge Parkway or the Appalachian Trail hiker. But the rally to save the plates has hit a wall, with key state lawmakers in the Senate seemingly unsympathetic to widespread support for the plates.

Unlike their counterparts in the Senate, members of the N.C. House of Representatives responded to public outcry and unanimously agreed to reinstate the plates with only minor changes that would aid visibility of the license number.

“It’s hard to understand why the Senate wouldn’t take this up when there’s so much universal support for it,” said Holly Demuth, the director in North Carolina for Friends of the Smokies. “We have basically two weeks to get this on the floor and voted on.”

That’s because the General Assembly is nearing the end of its short session. Senate leaders earlier this month said the focus from here on out would be placed on fiscal issues such as the state budget. That’s not exclusively the case, however. A bill allowing fracking in North Carolina, or hydraulic fracturing for shale gas, passed the Senate last week.

N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, said he would vote in favor of saving the specialty plates if a bill made it to the floor. Davis said he doesn’t know if that would happen during this short session, however.

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The bill to save the plates is a compromise of sorts. Last year’s bill banning full-color plates was made on the basis that law enforcement officers could not easily see license numbers. However, a subsequent study by the N.C. Department of Transportation found that any possible visibility issues — the colored backgrounds allegedly interfered with the legibility of numbers — could be solved if the numbers were printed on a white background. The rest of the plate’s design could stay intact, but the numbers themselves would be contained in a white box. Both the Division of Motor Vehicles and the state Highway Patrol supported the study’s findings — and it provided the basis for the compromise bill to save the plates.

Davis said that despite the results of the transportation department’s study there is some discussion now taking place about whether simply putting the license numbers on a white background as approved by the House is sufficient. Davis said there is continued concern, at least in the Senate and reportedly by some law enforcement, that even the redesigned specialty plates would be difficult for toll road cameras and stoplight cameras to distinguish.

Demuth said that she hopes the specialty plates bill makes it to the floor for a vote this session because the upcoming elections could shuffle the deck in Raleigh.

“Next year after elections we’d have to garner support all over again,” Demuth said.

If not repealed a new state law would kick in starting in 2015. Under this law, passed last year, the specialty plates would be reduced to tiny logos shoehorned into one small corner of a plate. Additionally, owners of the old plates would be required to turn those plates in to the Department of Motor Vehicles and get new ones.

Money raised from the sale of specialty license plates supports such groups as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Appalachian Trail and the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The specialty black bear plate has raised $2.5 million for Friends of the Smokies. One of the most popular, there’s about 20,000 of the Smokies plates on North Carolina’s roads. There are 216 specialty plates total in the state, running the gamut from an elk plate that supports the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to a coastal plate supporting coastal protection. There’s many obscure specialty plates, however, from tennis, a waterfowl museum and civic clubs such as Sudan Temple.

For many who sport the specialty plates, the attractive design is part and parcel with supporting the various organizations.

Janet Dickson of Macon County, who pays an extra $30 for a specialty Blue Ridge Parkway license plate, said she likes supporting the parkway — but she also likes the cool looking blue-on-yellow plate on her dark green Subaru Forester.

“It’s a good cause and I hope they don’t do away with it,” Dickson said. “I really like our plate.”

That’s exactly what Carolyn Ward, CEO of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, wants to hear. The Parkway Foundation has even put up a billboard in Interstate 40 calling on the public to speak out and help save the plates. The parkway’s specialty plates have raised more than $2.9 million since 2004.

Like the Smokies, the Parkway is already transitioning to a new design that uses a white background behind the license plate numbers. Initially, when the existing stockpile of specialty plates ran out, organizations were supposed to transition directly to the stripped down plates with only a logo in the corner, even though the law wouldn’t go into effect completely until 2015. But lawmakers agreed to a transitional design using the white background behind numbers during the interim.

Ward’s hoping that enthusiasm for the plates continues even though the parkway is switching to the new design with the white box.

Like Demuth, Ward said she believes it’s critical that the specialty plate bill be taken up quickly and passed by the state senate.

“We find it hard to believe that it wouldn’t happen this session with everything in line. It would be such a shame and disappointment,” Ward said.

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