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He thinks he sees a puddy-tat where he should see a panther

In a year when legislators are having trouble raising money to meet the state's education and health care needs, a state senator wants to spend $150,000 to change the Florida panther specialty auto tags.

State Sen. George Kirkpatrick, D-Gainesville, wants a new design, and he wants to recall the more than 25,000 tags issued.

Some folks think it looks like an emaciated house cat, Kirkpatrick says. They'd like it to look more like a strong, healthy Florida panther, one of the state's most endangered species.

Kirkpatrick's efforts to redesign the big Florida kitty ran afoul of budget conferees Friday as legislators tried to reconcile differences between the House and Senate budgets.

Kirkpatrick wants to keep the money in the budget, but other legislators object.

State Rep. George Albright, R-Ocala, questioned spending money to redesign and recall all the panther tags issued by the state during the budget crunch.

Kirkpatrick said he was insisting on keeping the $150,000 item in the budget during Friday's budget conference as a "hostage item" because other legislators insist on spending $1.7-million for an elderly driving program that could wait a year. They also want to finance extra jobs at the state Department of Revenue while seeking to cut money for spinal cord research, he said.

"There is a whole list of things people think we should do," Kirkpatrick said. "And there is very little being done for the environment."

Kirkpatrick and other conferees could not agree Friday and will leave the decision to appropriations chairmen in the House and Senate when they meet next week to resolve disputed issues.

Kirkpatrick said the Florida Council on Environmental Education, which receives some of the money raised by the tags, recently voted to seek the design change.

The tags are not selling as well as manatee plates or Challenger tags, the state's all-time best seller.

Money from the sale of panther tags is divided among the Florida Panther Research and Management Trust Fund, the Save our State Environmental Education Trust Fund and the Florida Communities Trust. So far, the state has sold 25,486 panther tags and has about 30,000 tags waiting to be sold.

Money from sales of the manatee tags goes to the Save the Manatee Trust Fund and the Save our State Environmental Trust Fund. So far, 131,984 manatee tags have been sold.

The Challenger tags were among the first specialty tags the state created. They went on sale in 1986, after the space shuttle Challenger exploded. The state has sold 442,000 of the tags. The proceeds initially went to a memorial for the astronauts. Now the money is divided between a scholarship fund and the Technological Research and Development Authority.