State lawmakers passed legislation this year to create license plates honoring Native American history and displaying opposition to abortion. Planned Parenthood of the Heartland also is about two-thirds of the way to the 250 pre-paid applications it needs to create organizational plates with the slogan, “My Body, My Choice.”
For many years, the state only offered a standard plate design. Beginning in 1997, Nebraska added a Husker Spirit plate on behalf of the University of Nebraska. But six new specialty plate designs have been approved by lawmakers and Gov. Pete Ricketts in the past three years, and more may be coming.
“Previously in the Legislature, there either wasn’t support or interest in specialty plates,” said Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles director Rhonda Lahm. “Once the interest began and some initial specialty plates were approved, others became interested in adding on to the different options available.”
In 2015, lawmakers approved license plates honoring current and former military service members, promoting breast cancer awareness and recognizing the state’s 150th birthday. A mountain lion conservation plate added in 2016 helps fund wildlife conservation education and assuaged Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, a longtime specialty license plate foe and mountain lion fan.
Lincoln Sen. Kate Bolz, who introduced the Native American Cultural Awareness and History plate bill for one of her constituents, said debate over the mountain lion plate and its popularity — at least 5,000 were sold during the first four months they were available — opened the door to new designs.
The plate carries an additional $5 fee, and proceeds will fund college scholarships and youth leadership camps through the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs.
The commission is working with the DMV to design a plate recognizing the 27 tribes historic to the region and the four now headquartered in Nebraska. Commission executive director Judi gaiashkibos said potential designs include existing art by a Plains Indian artist featuring universal animals such as the sacred eagle, buffalo and horses. The plate’s likely will include the text “Nebraska’s First People.”
“When the average person is driving down the highway, they’ll be reminded of the people that have been here, are still here and will be here in the future,” she said.
The “Choose Life” license plates also will cost $5 more than standard license plates and become available in January 2018. Additional revenue would supplement federal funds for the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program.
Nebraska still falls far behind other states when it comes to specialty plates. Texas, for instance, has more than 150 specialty plates, including a University of Nebraska plate for alumni and Cornhusker football fans. Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Florida also have at least 100 plates, and four of Nebraska’s six neighboring states have dozens of specialty plates.
Groups seeking specialty plates can avoid going through the Legislature by prepaying 250 applications and proving at least 250 people will pay an annual $70 renewal fee. That’s how groups including Creighton University, Nebraska Cattlemen and Ducks Unlimited got their plates, and it’s how Planned Parenthood is pursuing its design.
But the organizational plates are more expensive than state-approved specialty plates, and all the proceeds from them go to the DMV or Highway Trust Fund. License plate fees vary based on a car’s value and weight, and people seeking specialty plates will pay an extra $5 for most plates approved by the Legislature or an extra $70 for plates created by organizations.
State-approved plates for pet causes remain popular for groups including the Nebraska chapter of the National Choose Life effort, which had been unable to gather the signatures or money needed to apply for organizational plates.
The state should never sanction political speech on license plates, said Omaha Sen. Bob Krist, one of a handful of lawmakers who voted against the “Choose Life” plate bill at every stage. Krist said taking a stand against the bill was very difficult for him as a self-described “pro-life” politician with many vocal anti-abortion constituents.
“It’s a line that I don’t think we should have crossed, and we have,” he said. “It doesn’t make any difference whether your population supports it at 51 percent or not. That should have been something brought forth by an organization that believes in the political speech, not by the legislature and not by the governor of the state of Nebraska.”