New groups blocked from joining specialty license plate program Assembly panel named to review guidelines for organizational tags

February 01, 1997|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,SUN STAFF

Bowing to legislators' requests, state motor vehicle officials have stopped approving requests for specialty license plates from nonprofit groups that don't already have them.

The state is being sued by one nonprofit organization over its decision to revoke tags containing a Confederate battle flag, the group's logo.

The Motor Vehicle Administration quietly stopped taking new applications Jan. 21 at the request of state legislative leaders, who want to review the program in the wake of the lawsuit. And for three days this week, the MVA even refused to issue tags to members of 358 already-approved groups -- a position it reversed yesterday.

The MVA declined to confirm the changes to the embattled organizational license plate program until yesterday.

The program attracted national attention last month when the MVA recalled plates bearing the Confederate battle flag that had been issued to the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Black leaders had complained that the battle flag is racist and should not appear on a government-issued plate. The Sons are now suing the state, saying the plate recall violates their constitutional right to free speech.

In a Jan. 21 letter, state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. asked the MVA to "freeze" the program while lawmakers reviewed the guidelines for issuing specialty plates and the program's cost. The leaders formed the Special Joint Committee on Organizational License Plates to conduct the review.

The plates are popular among university alumni, military veterans, fraternal and hobby organizations because they display their names or logos.

State Sen. Leo E. Green, a Prince George's County Democrat, said senators have several concerns about the program. The MVA requires a nonprofit group to have only 25 members to obtain a plate, a number that seems too low, he said. Also, lawmakers want to know why the program is "barely breaking FTC even," he said. "In most other states, it at least carries its cost and makes money in some states."

Green, who co-chairs the special joint committee, said he doubts the legislature will take action while the Sons' court case is pending.

The program will be difficult to abolish completely because of its popularity among veterans and other groups with political clout in Annapolis, some lawmakers said.

"Politically [abolition] is impossible," Green said. "Once you provide a privilege or a right, it's hard to take that away."

Del. John S. Arnick, a Baltimore County Democrat, recently withdrew a bill ending the program, in part due to protests from veterans, he said.

Green and Arnick said they received complaints this week after the MVA stopped issuing tags to members of organizations already approved for them. "They were ringing my phone off the hook," Green said.

After discussions with an assistant attorney general and lawmakers, the MVA yesterday agreed to resume issuing plates to groups already in the program. "It would be impossible to uniformly apply this freeze to previously approved plates without affecting the people who hold the 130,000 plates that are already in circulation," said MVA spokeswoman Marilyn J. Corbett.

But an unspecified number of groups that recently sought tags are still out of luck. The MVA will continue to withhold approval of such applications until both the agency and the legislature finish reviews, she said.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans are not affected by the recent changes. Yesterday, the MVA sent out regular plates to 78 Sons members and asked them to turn in their logo tags within 30 days.

Pub Date: 2/01/97

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