Utah House passes moratorium on personalized license plates for 2nd straight year

Feb 2, 2023, 9:27 AM
Nick Lobos cleans his 1950 Ford during the Rumble in the Park car show in Salt Lake City on June 13...
Nick Lobos cleans his 1950 Ford during the Rumble in the Park car show in Salt Lake City on June 13, 2021. A bill is being considered to "streamline" Utah's license plate process, including temporarily pausing new personalized license plates from being issued. Nick Lobos cleans his 1950 Ford during the Rumble in the Park car show in Salt Lake City on June 13, 2021. A bill is being considered to "streamline" Utah's license plate process, including temporarily pausing new personalized license plates from being issued. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)
(Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is on the verge of temporarily pausing its personalized license plate program once again.

The Utah House of Representatives passed HB26 with a 53-18 vote Tuesday, sending it to Utah Senate for final approval. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, calls for a two-year moratorium on the personalized license plate program, or vanity plates, while also tweaking the process regarding how sponsored special group license plates are created.

It isn’t much different from a bill that Thurston sponsored last year, which also cleared the House of Representatives but stalled in the Utah Senate. The representative told KSL.com at the time that he believed it would have passed but the second chamber “didn’t get around to it” before the 2022 legislative session ended.

Thurston explained that the point of the bill is to “streamline” the license plate process in the state. It would set aside more options for standard Utah license plates and also alter the process for specialty license plates so that the Legislature doesn’t have to spend time looking at bills every year, while also making it clearer where the money from those license plates goes.

It would even allow a county to exempt some motor vehicles from emissions inspections regardless of whether or not they have vintage plates.

The bill also tackles a potential issue with the state’s personalized plate program. Thurston said the primary issue with the program is that its criteria for what is and isn’t considered offensive are about as “vague” as other states that have been sued over their criteria.

Thurston said he believes there are three options the state could do to handle the situation. Utah could do nothing; however, he argued during a House Transportation Committee meeting last week that there is a “reasonable chance” that the state gets sued if the Legislature doesn’t amend its program, where it may lose that court battle. The state could also just approve every license plate request if it wanted, he added.

Gephardt: Conflicting Laws Jam Plans For Black Utah License Plates

“The third option is that we could put this on pause and not issue personalized license plates until we have better information from the courts as to where that line should be drawn,” he said. “In this bill … we’re opting for that third option. Let’s just hit the pause button (and) let’s let other states spend their attorney money figuring out where the lines are drawn.”

This would allow time for Utah to amend its criteria to fit what federal courts decide in the future, he added. All existing personalized license plates approved before the proposed ban would still be allowed if the bill passes.

But not everyone agrees with this approach.

Chris Colwell, of Saratoga Springs, first learned about the bill only after the Utah House of Representatives passed it in 2022. His only issue with the bill is the personalized plates component of it, as he has three personalized license plates himself and he’s always been a fan of others’ plate creativity.

Colwell contends that, sure, there are some plates that may skirt the line; however, he says most represent a driver’s individuality. They highlight a person’s hobbies, interests, favorite sports team, nickname or humor in a way that’s different from a bumper sticker. He also believes the vast majority of people would not try to file for vulgar license plates, citing what happened in Maine when they lifted the rules.

Maine lifted its regulation in 2015 over similar concerns only to reverse that decision in 2021, according to the Associated Press. The state ultimately found there were only about 400 offensive plates worthy of being recalled among the 124,000 vanity license plates in the state, or less than 1% of all of the personalized plates.

So when Colwell saw that Thurston was bringing the bill back again this year, he decided to create Utahns for Custom Plates. The group argues against the ban, calling it a “slippery slope” that could end in a more permanent ban in the future.

“I think most people would not care to see vulgar things on license plates but I feel like punishing the entire population to keep up us from a minute chance of seeing (a lawsuit) is not a good choice,” Colwell told KSL.com Wednesday. “The chances of that happening are so small.”

He added that he hopes the Utah Senate will amend the bill and remove the personalized plates component of it.

It’s unclear when the Utah Senate will take up the discussion. The bill was sent to Senate Business and Labor Committee on Wednesday afternoon.

The chamber has until March 3 to vote on the measure.

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Utah House passes moratorium on personalized license plates for 2nd straight year