The number will be limited, but content won't be managed
State legislators seeking to overhaul Indiana’s specialty auto license plate system have to strike a delicate balance, and that’s what they seem to be doing in a bill that has cleared a committee unanimously and now goes before the full Senate. The measure would limit the number of plates without getting into judgment calls about a sponsoring group’s mission or message.
It was an attempt at content control that got the whole “plate reform” movement started in the first place. Some lawmakers tried to yank the plates sponsored by a support group for gay, lesbian and transgender teens because they disapproved of such activity. That effort was flawed on obvious constitutional grounds. In approving some messages but not others, the state is impermissibly trying to manage Hoosiers’ free-speech rights.
The new proposal would set requirements for groups to sell at least 500 plates a year and submit records on how they spend the proceeds, both of which are quite sensible. An eight-member bipartisan panel would review all the requests for new plates and recommend up to five new plates a year with a maximum of 150 allowed. That number is probably too high – the more of something there is, the less special it is – but it’s not a fatal flaw.
Nowhere in the bill is there a hint that the approval process will involve any value judgments about any group’s worthiness. Such judgments aren’t precluded, of course. Let’s see what happens if a Prostitutes for Peace or Let’s Nuke the Whales group wants a plate.
The plates are a nice benefit to offer Hoosier motorists. By paying a few dollars extra, drivers can support their favorite causes, and the general populace isn’t hit with a new tax. Citizens decide, by which plates they choose to buy and which they don’t, which groups they want to support and which they don’t.
But if the program isn’t managed carefully, it can be more trouble than it’s worth.