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Senate can't resist specialty tags

It started innocently enough in 1987, with a special Challenger auto tag in memory of the astronauts who died on the doomed space shuttle.

Eleven years later, Florida's specialty tags have exploded to 39 choices, commemorating everything from manatees to Girl Scouts.

On Monday, legislators declared it's time to get a handle on what has become a standing joke in the Capitol. They talked about making it tougher to create new tags _ and then they agreed that Florida might need just a few more specialty plates.

Senators gave tentative approval to doubling the fee required of groups that want to establish new tags, declaring that it really costs the state $60,000 to get a tag ready to roll. They also want to increase the petitions needed for a new tag from 10,000 to 15,000 and require the state to discontinue the poor sellers. The House has approved similar legislation.

But at the same time, senators gave tentative approval to an auto tag declaring "Choose Life," and another for Barry University in South Florida. Proceeds from the "Choose Life" plate would go for private, not-for-profit agencies that counsel pregnant women who plan to give up their children for adoption.

An Ocala group, Choose Life Inc., has paid the current $30,000 application fee and met other requirements to establish the plate.

But some senators had doubts, asking who it will benefit.

Sponsor Tom Lee, R-Brandon, assured: "This is just another in a number of license plates."

Still another specialty tag made headway Monday. Sen. Charlie Crist, R-St. Petersburg, wants to establish a "Conserve Wildlife" plate with a black bear on it. Proceeds would go to the Wildlife Foundation of Florida, a citizens group, and to the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission.

Richard Harland, head of an animal rescue organization in St. Petersburg, is protesting the bill, saying the wildlife foundation endorses hunting. He says people who buy the plate thinking they are helping wildlife will be duped.

"It's an innocent little bill," countered Crist, who was puzzled by the opposition Monday.

"The man does not read his mail," Harland said, saying he has written to Crist about his concerns. In response, he said, he has received "inane letters that say absolutely nothing."

Harland thought the bill was blocked from further consideration. But Monday, Senate Ways and Means chairman Donald Sullivan, R-Seminole, pulled the bill from his committee, allowing it to be heard on the Senate floor.

Specialty tags have generated more than $121-million for a variety of programs, including space technology research and college scholarships.

The most popular: the Challenger plate. Since January 1987, 638,107 have been issued, raising $31.5-million for an astronauts memorial foundation and technological research and development.

Other big sellers have been the manatee plate (402,131 sold since 1990) and the panther plate (291,566 since 1990).

In contrast, only 607 Orlando Predators (arena football) plates have been sold. And only 2,903 plates benefiting the Police Athletic League have been issued.

Specialty plates marked a sluggish day in the Legislature.

Work on major issues remains unfinished as the Legislature moves toward the session's end Friday.

Lawmakers were meeting Monday evening on significant changes to the civil court system. The Legislature still faces budget vetoes by the governor. And the matter of vouchers _ using public dollars for private schools _ remains unresolved.

In the House, Speaker Daniel Webster said Monday that he has agreed to disconnect a voucher plan from a proposal to offer subsidized health insurance to thousands of additional children. There is bipartisan support for the health insurance, but Gov. Lawton Chiles and most Democrats oppose vouchers.

Webster has asked the governor to consider allowing an experimental voucher program for low-income 5-year-olds who are not prepared to enter public kindergarten. He would limit the vouchers to a small area and cap the number of participants.

Chiles remains philosophically opposed to vouchers and wants to see Webster's written proposal, a spokesman for the governor's office said.

Times Political Editor Tim Nickens contributed to this report.