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End the specialty tag fad

Florida lawmakers agreed at one point in last year's legislative session that 39 specialty license plates were too many. So they made it more difficult and more expensive for groups to get the tags. At the same time, lawmakers approved several more specialty plates. They seemed not to grasp the cause-and-effect relationship. Perhaps the 1999 Legislature will do better.

Florida has too many specialty tags. The idea of a license plate with a message was approved initially to honor the astronauts who died when the space shuttle Challenger exploded. Now the tags commemorate everything from universities to private schools to endangered species to professional sports teams. Yet only 8 percent of drivers in Florida use specialty tags, which cost $20 plus the regular vehicle registration fee. Another $10 is charged when the tag is first bought.

The extra money goes to charities designated beforehand by groups that succeed in getting specialty tags approved. That takes some budget pressure off the Legislature, which suggests why lawmakers toughen regulations for tags rather than just stop issuing them. Why should lawmakers toil to find a new source of revenue to protect the manatee or the panther when some of these tags generate millions of dollars a year?

The specialty plates are not without controversy. During this year's session, the Legislature approved one that said, "Choose Life." Backers said money raised from its purchase would go to counseling pregnant women who want to give their children up for adoption. Opponents argued that such an anti-abortion message had no place on state-issued tags. The Legislature approved the tag; Gov. Lawton Chiles vetoed it.

Registering vehicles is a requirement for driving in Florida. Whether intended or not, messages on the tags carry the state's endorsement. The tags are no place to debate controversial government issues. Drivers still have the option of buying personalized license plates.

The state has 40 specialty tags and several more ready to come on line soon. It's hard to tell that some of them are from Florida, which doesn't help law enforcement officers. Even more proposals are before the Legislature for approval in 1999, including "Choose Life" again. It is time for lawmakers to end a fad that has gotten out of hand.