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By Melanie Asmar
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Peter Reshetniak respects wildlife. Dale Todd respects life.
Neither man feels he is getting much respect from the state legislature, however, since lawmakers are well on their way to approving a bill that would not only make it harder for groups to qualify for specialty license plates but could also eliminate some of the 74 colorful designs that already exist.
"It's really laughable," says Reshetniak, president of the Raptor Education Foundation. "We've come up with a great plate that everybody really likes, the only nature plate in Colorado. We signed a contract with the [state Motor Vehicle Division] over a year ago, and now the state is trying to renege on those folks, not just us, who have followed the state's guidelines and fulfilled the terms of the contract, and back out of it all."
The Raptor Education Foundation, a twenty-year-old nonprofit conservation group, spent $50,000 to design, create and market its plate, Reshetniak says. The black-and-white (rather than standard green-and-white) plates will bear the slogan "Respects Wildlife" and display the head of a bald eagle. People who pay $150 to join the foundation are eligible for the plates; they'll be given a voucher that they can later exchange at a motor vehicle registration office for a set -- if and when they're finally available. The Motor Vehicle Division approved the plate design early last year and was supposed to start issuing them in January.
But then came the Columbine controversy.
Dale Todd is the father of Evan Todd, a Columbine High School student who was shot in the back during the April 1999 attack. The tragedy made Todd think a lot about the nation's character flaws, about video games and Hollywood and all of the other negative influences on this country's children. And it made him think about how little people respect each other -- and life itself. So he and Mark Schnurr, whose daughter was also severely wounded at Columbine, got the idea of creating a specialty license plate that would show a picture of a columbine -- the state flower as well as the school's namesake -- and the words "Respect Life." People who donated $50 to the Columbine Injured Victims Fund, which covers medical and educational costs for victims of Columbine as well as school-aged victims of other violent crime, would get a voucher that allowed them to get the plates.
After the state approved the Columbine design early last year, though, Todd and Schnurr made the mistake of going before the legislature last April to ask that the state handle the plate's administrative costs so that people donating $50 wouldn't also have to pay the state's standard $35 specialty-plate fee. Although Todd says he'd "never put two and two together," a number of legislators immediately noticed that "Respect Life" was also the slogan for several Catholic and anti-abortion projects. While the plate is still scheduled to be in production by April, the subsidy bill died in committee.
"Can you imagine that the nation is uncomfortable with those two little words?" asks Todd, who says he isn't opposed to abortion and is still angry at the legislature. "The mere fact that they are queasy about this shows how short we are of positive leadership in this nation. I'm happy it upset them. If those two little words got some people upset, well, then, good."
But those two little words may now prevent anyone from seeing more than a couple "Respect Life" or "Respects Wildlife" plates. Officials with the Colorado Department of Revenue, which oversees the Motor Vehicle Division, decided they were uncomfortable deciding which plates were appropriate and which -- like those promoting sports teams, businesses or political and social messages -- were not. So they put the "Respects Wildlife" and "Respect Life" plates on hold and asked Republican state representative Bill Swenson, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, to introduce a bill this session that would shift that responsibility to the legislature. Since most of the 74 plates already in existence were approved by lawmakers in the first place, the measure would affect only future plate designs and those that the state approved without legislative backup. Among the unlucky ones: "Respects Wildlife" and "Respect Life," as well as plates for Always Buy Colorado, the Naval Reserves, the Marine Corps, Masonic Family, the Air Force, firefighters, the 10th Mountain Division, the Knights of Columbus and University of Colorado alumni. Finally, there's the extremely popular pioneer plate, made available only to people who are direct descendants of actual Colorado pioneers.
"The Department of Revenue, which is an administrative body, was having to make a political decision," Swenson says, adding that such judgments are really the legislature's job. "That's why we are politicians. We make political decisions."
But the proliferation of specialty plates was also becoming a hassle for the Motor Vehicle Division, Swenson notes. That $35 specialty plate fee goes into something called the Highway Users Trust Fund, and only a portion of the money is doled back to the motor vehicle office. Add to that a major budget crisis within the division that's already caused a shortage of all kinds of license plates, and things have gotten messy. "There are certain production costs that we have to cover, and problems with county clerks," Swenson points out. "It's logistics."
That's why his bill, which was passed by the House on January 31, would also require that a group wanting a new specialty plate would have to prove that at least 2,000 people -- up from the current 250 -- are interested in the design. Groups that already have plates would be grandfathered in but would still have to show that a certain number of new people are asking for the plate every year. (The exact number will be decided if and when the Senate, which received the bill last week, approves it.) If demand doesn't reach the correct level, the state will stop making the plates -- although those that have already been issued will not be taken away.
That's not good enough for Zoe Hubbard, who designed the pioneer plate and runs a Longmont business that researches family histories. Although her plate wouldn't be affected by the new rules -- there are already 20,000 pioneer plates on the road -- she thinks the bill is in violation with contracts that she and the rest of the plate designers signed with the Motor Vehicle Division. "They are throwing things into the bill intentionally to make it difficult for us," she says. "A contract is a contract, and I expect the state to stand up and honor that."
Hubbard, Reshetniak, Todd and other plate proponents have all hired lawyers to evaluate whether the proposed law violates their contracts with the state. They're also planning to hire a lobbyist to convince lawmakers and the governor, if necessary, that the bill is inappropriate in its current form.
"There is a simple solution," Hubbard says. "If the bill would say that continuing programs will operate under their existing contracts, that would be fine. Otherwise, we may spend years in court."
The Raptor Education Fund has already signed up 300 people who are now waiting for their "Respects Wildlife" plates. But if the bill passes and Reshetniak's group can't meet the minimum requirement next year, those 300 plates may be the only ones that hit the road.
"This has the prospect of really hurting us," he says. "It's very frustrating for a small nonprofit like us. Something isn't working at the DMV. You just have to wonder who is running what."