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Oregon prohibits relition, politics on plates

Options such as “Choose Life” are not available

By Peter Wong
(Salem) Statesman Journal

Anti- or pro-abortion license plates are not an issue in Oregon, even though 10 states offer and 12 more are considering a “Choose Life” option that critics say takes one side on the issue.

The state would have to drop one of the three special license plates it offers now if the Oregon Legislature ever chose another one.

A bill passed by the 2003 Legislature and signed by Gov. Ted Kulongoski also raises the minimum number of plates that must be sold for a higher-education institution, nonprofit agency or veterans’ organization to qualify for special variations on standard plates.

The new law bars expressions of political opinion or religious belief on plates. It contrasts with laws in other states that allow “Choose Life,” which sponsors say is intended to promote adoption but critics argue is opposed to abortion rights.

Sponsored by Sen. Charles Starr, R-Hillsboro, Senate Bill 508 was intended to put some limits on the plethora of plates. According to a legislative staff report, Oregon has 30 of them when variations on the standard plate are considered.

In addition to the standard plate, which depicts a tree and mountains, Oregon has three plates with special backgrounds that can be used only on passenger cars and trucks:

  • The salmon plate, authorized in 1997, costs a motorist $30 every two years in addition to regular registration fees of $54 and customizing fees of $50. Part of the money goes to restoration of salmon habitat.
  • The Cultural Trust plate, authorized in 2001, also costs $30 every two years in addition to fees. Part of the money goes into the Cultural Trust, interest earnings from which will pay for a variety of arts programs.
  • The Crater Lake plate, also authorized in 2001, requires a one-time payment of $20 in addition to fees. Part of the money goes to a fund for Oregon’s only national park.

Part of the money from each special plate, plus money from customized standard plates known as “vanity plates,” go to the state anti-litter fund.

Oregon is not alone in issuing special plates, but it offers fewer varieties than its neighbors. California has nine special plates, Idaho 28 and Nevada 14. Washington has 16, although all are variations on its standard plate that depicts a mountain in the background.

Under state motor-vehicle regulations, which the Oregon Supreme Court upheld last year, motorists are restricted from using certain words or phrases on customized plates. The court rejected a challenge by a former wine merchant who sought to use “WINE” or “VINO.”

During the 2003 session, bills were submitted to allow Oregon to issue other special plates, including cancer screening and treatment, education, the humane society and the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

None of the bills advanced beyond a committee hearing.

A 1999 bill for a “kids first” license plate also died in committee.

More than a decade ago, the Legislature authorized license plates commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Oregon Trail. Proceeds helped pay for related activities.

The bill by the 2003 Legislature also raises from 50 to 500 the number of plates that must be sold for a higher-education institution, nonprofit agency or veterans’ organization to qualify for a modified standard plate. Such plates, the law said, “may not contain expressions of political opinion or religious belief.”

Symbols are allowed in some instances, such as the University of Oregon Ducks and the Oregon State University Beavers, or the Purple Heart, the military decoration awarded for wounds in combat.

An organization requesting a modified plate must put up $10,000, although the money is refunded if 1,000 license plate sets are sold.

The new law has no effect on several existing categories of plates for disabled military veterans, former prisoners of war, active Oregon National Guard members, amateur radio operators and elected officials.