Will Utah lawmakers push pause on personalized license plates?

Utah House passes bill to change license plate rules

Personalized license plates (for now), emissions test "cheaters" and the current way new license plates are approved may all be things of the past, as a result of a bill that's now halfway through the legislative process.

The Utah House of Representatives on Tuesday passed HB368, which would shift the responsibility from the Legislature to the governor's office or Department of Motor Vehicles. Rep. Norman Thurston, R-Provo, the bill's sponsor, calls it "the bill to end all license plate bills."

The bill would also place a moratorium on any personalized plates and would allow a county to require an emissions inspection of a vintage vehicle under certain circumstances — mostly people who use vintage plates to dodge emissions testing requirements, according to Thurston.

It passed the House on Tuesday with a 49-19 vote.

There are three major parts to the bill. While most of it centers around the process to create a new license plate, the item that would be most noticeable right away is a temporary pause on new personalized license plates for at least one year — with the potential for lawmakers to extend the moratorium every year.

This pause, which would take effect July 1 if approved, comes as three other states deal with lawsuits over First Amendment issues and headaches over offensive language on plates, Thurston told his colleagues on the House floor. His proposed solution is to stop it altogether and wait and see how the courts rule before making a more permanent solution.

"We don't want a court case and we don't want the F-word or the N-word or whatever word on our license plates," he said.

All existing personalized license plates approved before the proposed ban would be grandfathered in.

Appearing on KSL NewsRadio's "KSL at Night," Thurston said the state will likely be modified in the future based on what happens elsewhere so Utah's program is "consistent both with good taste and whatever First Amendment requirements the courts will allow."

Also under the bill, there would be four standard license plate designs, like the common Delicate Arch plate. Any new standard designs would start with the governor's office. The Legislature would then approve any design through a resolution instead of the current process, which goes through committees and both chambers before it ends up on the governor's desk.

"You'd have to get the governor to sign off on it anyway, so let's make him do all the work upfront," Thurston said, prior to Tuesday's vote.

The state currently has three standard plates, meaning there would automatically be one new standard plate open for any major event or celebration.

Colleges, charitable nonprofit organizations or state agencies that would like to have their own special group license plates wouldn't go through the Legislature at all. They would be able to submit their plate designs directly to the Department of Motor Vehicles. The DMV would have the power to grant the plates, as long as the sponsoring organization's application is approved, it presents the department with at least 500 complete preorder applications and it pays the cost for "startup fees."

During his presentation of the bill in a committee hearing last week, Thurston said organizations already have those responsibilities when requesting a new specialty license plate.

He explained the bill sets that criteria in writing, which he said some lawmakers have skirted in the past. Thurston added it would also make more transparent which charitable causes money from a specialty license plate goes to and why, increase "fairness" in that all organizations have "equal footing" when trying to get a specialty plate" and decrease any burdens on the Legislature.

"And now we don't have to spend any time drafting, voting or considering these bills," he said. "They go down to the DMV, present their application with their 500 preorders and their check and they get the plate. It's that simple."

The Legislature is mulling bills this year that would create "Utah Dark Sky" and "Live On" suicide prevention campaign-themed license plates. Lawmakers last approved a specialty license plate — one that honors Martin Luther King Jr. — last year after a nearly decadelong effort by the Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Commission.

As for the vintage license plate component, the bill is in coordination with SB51, sponsored by Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, to catch "the cheaters" in emission testing. Only approved collectors' cars or any vehicle driven less than 1,500 miles a year would be allowed to be exempt from emissions testing. Harper is listed as the Senate sponsor of HB368.

A vintage vehicle license plate is pictured during the Rumble in the Park car show at Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City on Sunday, June 13, 2021. A 2021 study on Utah’s license plate program notes that of the 74 special license plates currently in circulation, 19 receive no revenue at all.
A vintage vehicle license plate is pictured during the Rumble in the Park car show at Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City on Sunday, June 13, 2021. A 2021 study on Utah’s license plate program notes that of the 74 special license plates currently in circulation, 19 receive no revenue at all. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The bill could result in an $857,000 hit to the state's transportation revenue because of the extra money Utahns pay to get personalized plates, according to a note on the bill by the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel.

The note also estimates a fourth standard plate may cost $425,000 in the future. However, the report points out all the proposed changes "likely will not change the regulatory burden for Utah residents or businesses."

Thurston added on his "KSL at Night" appearance that he believes the additional costs associated with making personalized plates will help offset some of the lost revenue because most of the fees are designed to cover the cost of the program.

There were some mixed thoughts on the House floor before the vote.

Rep. Kay J. Christofferson, R-Lehi, said he supports the bill because he's in favor of anything that helps "streamline the process" in coming up with new license plates.

"It's gotten out of hand," added Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, regarding the legislative process of new specialty plates.

Rep. Doug Sagers, R-Tooele, on the other hand, opposes the bill because he said it appears there would be an "unlimited" number of specialty license plates, and he questioned the reasoning behind the personalized license plates moratorium.

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Others said they appreciate the direction the bill is going but want more input from colleges, organizations and agencies before going forward.

"It just seems too broad for me right now," said Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton. "I think we might be on the right path here ... but I'm not sure we're quite there."

But with the House vote, the bill is now off to the Utah Senate. The bill was sent to the Senate Rules Committee on Tuesday afternoon.

If it clears the Senate without any new modifications by March 4, it will be sent to Gov. Spencer Cox's desk for consideration.

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