If the bill wins approval, anyone who wants the new plates would pay an additional $30, with most of that new revenue going to the Oregon Tourism Commission, aka Travel Oregon. Drivers could prove their fealty to our local wines, and the state would get even more money to lure visitors the region. Even better, the plates would pay for themselves.
But the bill—by putting an explicit reference to alcohol on a state license plate—also raises an interesting side issue. Wouldn't creating the new license plate stink—nay, reek—of hypocrisy?
Consider: The Department of Motor Vehicles, via a robust administrative policy, actively bans all references to drugs or alcohol on custom license plates—even seemingly harmless ones. The idea is that motor vehicles shouldn't become billboards promoting drunk or impaired driving. The DMV feels so strongly about the ban, in fact, that it went all the way to the Oregon Supreme Court to defend it (no doubt at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars) when someone in the mid-1990s applied for custom plates with the characters "WINE," "INVINO," and "VINO."
"The rule is still in place," David House, a DMV spokesman, confirmed when I asked.
And yet, the state could soon wind up sanctioning its own license plate with the word "wine" on it. Even though a regular citizen seeking a "WNECNTRY" custom plate, or some other such combination, would be out of luck.
House acknowledged, after I used that wording while asking him, that someone might ask whether Legislature and the DMV would be sending conflicting messages. But he said an answer would have to come from the legislature or the courts.
"If the wine country plate bill passes, we don't know if that has any impact on the custom plate rules," House says. "That will have to be figured out by the courts, probably. Because we just don't have the answer."
Interestingly, despite the DMV's longstanding policy, when SB 442 A came up for a committee hearing this spring, how the bill and the rule would play together wasn't among the concerns mentioned by lawmakers.
Dixie Hannon, an aide to Senator Jackie Winters, the bill's sponsor, said the issue came up in discussions with the Oregon Legislative Counsel before the bill was drafted—but that the attorneys said only that the DMV's ban wouldn't preclude the new specialty plates, because the ban specifically addresses custom plates.
"The Legislative Counsel said there should be no problem at all," Hannon said.
Hannon also said a constituent wrote in about the bill, complaining—along the lines of the DMV—that merely mentioning the word "wine" would promote drunk driving and alcoholism. Hannon told me, politely, that she disagreed.
"The rules are for custom license plates, but not for specialty plates that go through the Legislature," she said. "I'm not sure everyone would agree that this plate is promoting drunk driving."
She's right. Winters' bill won't be the problem here—even if it passes and the state does wind up sending hypocritical messages. Maybe, just maybe, it's the DMV that ought to consider a change. Before someone forces the issue in front of a judge.