Utah senators OK tighter ban on disparaging vanity plates

(Photo courtesy of Matt Pacenza) A Utah license plate that reads "DEPORTM" is helping to advance SB97 which would tighten bans on vanity plats that have disparaging messages.

A stricter ban on vanity license plates that disparage particular groups passed the state Senate on Wednesday, after lawmakers briefly debated ending the issuance of personalized plates altogether.

Discussion about the state’s process for approving vanity plates flared up with the recent controversy over a Utah plate that read “DEPORTM.” Sen. Luz Escamilla, sponsor of the bill that cleared the Senate, said a recent legislative committee meeting brought to light that state tax commission officials need a better framework for evaluating plate requests.

Her bill would prohibit plates that disparage anyone based on race, color, national origin, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, citizenship status or a physical or mental disability.

A recent Tribune review found the state had in recent years also approved specialty plates that read “NEGROS” “J3WBRNR” and “FÜHRER,” while rejecting applications for plates such as “COFFEE” and “MERLOT.”

Before lawmakers passed Escamilla’s legislation, SB97, by a 20-7 vote, they discussed a proposed revision that would stop the state from issuing new vanity plates. Sen. Wayne Harper’s substitute bill would have allowed people to keep plates obtained through June 30, but it would prevent the tax commission from approving any more after that date.

Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said she had considered that approach but cautioned it would spark a backlash.

“If you want to get some angry constituents, I encourage more conversation on this, because people do love their license plates,” said Escamilla, noting that a number of legislators have their own personalized plates.

Senators rejected the substitute bill suggested by Harper, R-Taylorsville, before passing the underlying legislation.

Having cleared the Senate, the legislation heads to the House for consideration.