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Lights go out for plan to issue a Dark Skies license plate in Utah

A mock-up of a potential Utah Dark Sky license plate that was under consideration by Utah legislators.
A mock-up of a potential Utah Dark Sky license plate that was under consideration by Utah legislators.
Eliza Hawkins

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah House of Representatives dimmed the lights on one lawmaker’s efforts to promote the state’s star-filled skies.

“License plates are not only a designation that a vehicle is registered and who it belongs to, but for several years, they’ve become kind of a ‘mini-mobile-billboard,’” said Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, who sponsored HB198 that would create a Utah Dark Sky license plate.

Though it passed through a committee last week, on Thursday it failed to gain the needed 38 votes for House approval, failing on a 36-35 vote.

Handy said he wanted to find “something unique about our state; a story we can tell, celebrate and promote,” and when he found out about “astro-tourism” where people travel places to see the night sky, his idea came to light.

He was not the only stargazer in the House.

Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, shared a story of when he went camping in one of the dark sky areas, calling it “is one of my favorite places in Utah.”

“You pray when you camp there that is not going to be cloudy at night, because there’s something special that happens to you when you’re unfiltered from human-caused light,” he said.

A mock-up of a potential Utah Dark Sky license plate that was under consideration by Utah legislators.
A mock-up of a potential Utah Dark Sky license plate that was under consideration by Utah legislators.
Eliza Hawkins

But then some clouds rolled into the Capitol.

Rep. Scott Chew, R-Jensen, worried the design would make it difficult for police to identify a vehicle in the event of an Amber alert, robbery or some other incident.

“I don’t have any issues with Utah being unique and having a lot of unique things,” Chew said, “(but) we have license plates on vehicles so that if there is an issue it can be identified.”

For Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, it was a concern about the association the state would have with an environmental group known as the International Dark-Sky Association.

“It comes with a real laundry list of requirements and agendas and they say right there on their website that they’re interested in affecting public policy and it’s crucial to fulfilling their mission,” Lyman said.

Handy denied that the license plate would boost any specific environmentalist agenda.

“This would just be a wonderful thing to celebrate,” Handy said. “I didn’t get any kind of the sense that this would be driving any policy that I wouldn’t be comfortable with.”

What ultimately killed the bill was the money.

The fiscal note estimated $175,000 in one-time costs, including for the production of 25,000 license plates. The Dark Sky license plate would sell for $7 each, but it was noted that “the total quantity demanded is unknown.”

Handy and Rep. Raymond Ward, R-Bountiful, said the plate would increase outside tourism and more than return the $175,000 investment.

But the doubters were too many.

“This is coming from someone who absolutely loves these designs,” Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy, said. “But I also don’t know if we should be spending $175,000 on something like a license plate when there’s so many other groups, people (and) interests that are highly in need, and I think this money could be spent elsewhere,” he said.

Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, agreed, saying “although I can see that this could be a really cool idea, I don’t think that it merits the $175,000 out of this year’s budget.”