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Partisan Plates 

No matter the vanity or color, Sen. John Watkins strikes them down.

During more than 20 years at the General Assembly, Watkins says he's seen proposed bills for hundreds of special license plates. He's voted against practically all of them. To simply propose a new plate costs $2,000, he says, a big chunk of change when only 10 percent of those that are approved actually end up on cars.

"The principle is that [it] is something that should be done administratively," he says, leaving less time for more pressing issues.

Watkins appears to be in the minority.

"He's always opposed it. There's always two" who do, says state Sen. Jay O'Brien, R-Clifton, of Watkins and Sen. Harry Blevins, R-Chesapeake. "I sort of disagree philosophically."

The Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles has nearly 200 specialized license plates — representing everything from your local university to scuba diving. The DMV would go haywire trying to approve all the new plates proposed, O'Brien insists. It's also important to weed out any of the crude plates that could be submitted, he says, which can be done more efficiently at the legislature.

"Virginia, I think, used to have the highest per-capita use of vanity plates," says O'Brien, who is sponsoring a bill for an "I VOTED" license plate. (He says it would help draw attention to and help election poll workers.)

Republican state Sen. Frank Ruff Jr., R-Clarksville is proposing a plate commemorating the 200th birthday of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

He thinks the special plates have their place. "It's not a waste of money because people pay for these license plates," he says. "They don't make any plans to make a plate until they can finance them."

But maybe there is a need for change, O'Brien says.

An organization must pay $3,500 to propose a plate. The General Assembly approves the bills with the understanding that they won't go into effect unless 350 people agree to purchase the plates. This after-the-fact legislation doesn't sit well with Delegate John Welch III, R-Virginia Beach.

Welch is sponsoring legislation that would require plate advocates to get their 350 signatures before the bill would come before the General Assembly. He says it would reduce the wasted time the legislature spends on license plates. It would also eliminate the $3,500 prepaid fee.

Watkins, however, stands firmly against. "It's about the time and expenditures," he says. And even those sponsoring the license plate bills this session agree that the General Assembly might not be the best place for to determine which new plates are admitted onto Virginia's roadways.

"I don't think it has to be at the legislative level," Ruff says. But as long as it's important to the citizens, he'll take them into consideration. S
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