Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Kentucky needs simple auto plates

Russell Thomas: Local Voices

I live in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Just like every other state in the Union right now, it seems to be undergoing a budget shortfall. I guess that is politics-speak for being broke.

There are several ideas on how to fix the problem - from more gambling to creating a shortfall in my budget, with higher taxes. But this isn't about where to get the money from, but a question about where some of it went.

How much was spent on the artwork for our new license plate? I hope it wasn't much.

In case you have been fortunate and haven't seen one yet, they are not the most attractive things I've ever had to hang from my rear bumper. It kind of makes me long for the days of blue letters on a white background and vice-versa the next year.

Imagine a background of monotone green hills, a solid blue sky, relieved only by a large, smiling, yellow sun. All that's missing is Laa Laa, Po and the rest of the Teletubbies.

Gov. Paul Patton seems ambivalent at best. As he said in an article, published in the Lexington Herald-Leader in early January, "They don't put Rembrandts on the back of cars." True enough. But neither do they try to copy Andy Warhol, but without the artistry.

Based on what I've seen at the courthouse, getting an auto tag is now almost as bad as picking out a tattoo. After all, whatever you pick, you'll be living with it for five years and you have lots of images to pick from, some more attractive and more costly than others.

Which may be the point. What better way to increase revenues than by having folks make a choice between paying a few extra bucks for a real license plate, or take what the state hands you, something that closely resembles a nursery wallpaper border?

Some years ago, when most states still displayed single-colored numbers on a solid background, Wyoming put a cowboy riding a bucking horse on its license plates. Some collecting organization gave them an award for the best-looking license plate in the country, and now every state is trying to win what amounts to a meaningless honor, by turning their auto tags into postcards.

After all, will my car tags be less expensive if some organization thinks they are attractive? But I do have to pay, visually at least, for a loser. This plate is about as attractive as week old road kill.

But here's where the real money comes in. Kentucky has more than 60 affinity plates, where for an extra $10 or so, instead of proudly showing your affinity to a cartoonish picture, your affiliation with some other organization can become your bumper art.

Everything from universities and colleges, to veterans organizations, to nature groups, to your kid's grade school. OK I might be exaggerating about the grade school, but not by much. You don't have to take my word for it. Check them out yourself at Kentucky's official website for license plates, (http://kvis-kytc.state.ky.us/KyRenewWeb/index.jsp). Do we really need all this? Why must "conspicuous consumerism" include license plates?

A few years ago Kentucky had a similar flap (you would think they would have learned) when they depicted the spires of Churchill Downs on the new auto tags. Some religious groups objected, arguing they considered it a promotion of gambling, to which they were morally opposed.

To end the controversy, the Commonwealth made available a strip of blue material that would adhere to the plate, and cover the spires. A strip that covers my entire plate would be nice, although maybe a bit extreme. Just offer me a white on blue alternative to any design I find offensive, and color me happy.


Russell Thomas lives in Melbourne, Ky. He is a government employee and freelance writer. Thomas is a member of the Enquirer's Local Voices panel, which contributes columns to the opinion pages twice a week.

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