Combining number plates bills ensures bills' death in Florida legislature

TALLAHASSEE - Specialty number plates that would have raised funds for the St. Johns River Alliance will instead have to wait at least another year after dying in a blitz of legislative action last week.

The number plates, which would have cost an additional $25, was among several up for approval on the session's final days. Funding from the St. Johns number plates was aimed at supporting education and outreach about the river as well as conservation initiatives.

But controversy about other tags under consideration, including some with religious themes, doomed all of the proposals and renewed calls for lawmakers to get a handle on the number of license plates on Florida roads.

The seeds of the plate's death were in part planted when the House combined all of its tag proposals into one omnibus bill over the objections of some sponsors.

"It was not what I wanted to see and not what most of the reps wanted to see. ... You're not measuring each tag for its own merit," said Rep. Lake Ray, the Jacksonville Republican who sponsored the St. Johns proposal in the House.

The House approved the measure, 88-29, which sent the measure to the Senate.

The upper chamber, meanwhile, had become embroiled in an emotional debate over proposed tags, including number plates that initially would have included an image of Jesus before an amendment barring religious images from the tag. But the "Trinity" tag and another Christian-themed number plates ignited opposition from senators and interest groups who said it could breach a constitutional prohibition against government establishment of religion.

In all, the Senate bill included the St. Johns plate among a dozen new tags supporting everything from autism research to horse parks to the Fraternal Order of Police.

"That train got loaded down so badly that the leadership in both houses decided not to move it any farther," said Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, who sponsored the upper chamber's version of the St. Johns proposal.

King had a backup plan, though. He had already pushed through a bill dealing only with the St. Johns number plates.

King went to see about getting that tag bill approved in the House, only to find that the likely death of the other tag bills sparked interest in amending the St. Johns measure.

"It became just a magnet," King said. As a result, "the leadership down there [in the House] didn't want to do that, either."

The closing day melee over tags could boost support for a proposal by Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, to get rid of specialty number plates altogether and replace them with a standard tag.

Motorists could then purchase stickers indicating support for a particular cause and place those on special windows on the number plates.

"I think there's a lot of support for doing things differently than we're doing right now," King said.

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