DENVER — Heads or tails" may never be the same again.
What about: "heads or the Empire State Building?" Maybe. If legislation currently winding its way through Congress becomes law, then designs commemorating each of the 50 states would begin to appear on the "tails" side of United States quarters in 1999.
The measure, which has the support of Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, is expected to win easy approval from both the House and Senate in coming weeks, and promptly be signed into law. So now, all over the country, states are debating what image most accurately represents them, animal, vegetable, or mineral.
Here in Colorado, for example, champions of the dainty state flower, a columbine, are up against advocates of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains.
According to the plan, five new quarters would be issued annually for 10 years, in the order that states were admitted to the union - putting Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut up front.
The coins would be produced at the mints here in Denver and in Philadelphia, and would circulate nationwide. Using current production figures, more than 1 billion would be issued each year.
The process by which states would choose their symbols has yet to be determined. But one possibility is establishing a governor-appointed commission in each state. A public vote, however, is unlikely.
Even though states may choose from a broad range of symbols, there are notable restrictions: No "frivolous" designs, no corporate logos, no images of any public figures such as sports stars or celebrities. And to prevent the dreaded two-headed quarter, no bust-style portraits of anyone, living or dead.
Moreover, the Treasury secretary would consult with state leaders and have final say on the selection, notes Mike White at US Mint headquarters in Washington. The federal Commission of Fine Arts would then help refine the design.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Michael Castle (R) of Delaware, says the program would be "educational and fun and promote pride among the states, and would be a winner financially."
In fact, a preliminary Treasury Department study indicates the program is likely to generate between $2.6 billion and $5.1 billion in government revenue. This is based on the fact that it costs just pennies to produce the 25-cent pieces, and the majority of Americans are expected to save a good number of the coins.
Yet some will wonder what exactly is wrong with the current image of the eagle. After all, the design hasn't changed since 1932. That's precisely why a change would be welcome, says Guillermo Hernandez, a spokesman at the US Mint here. "We're actually authorized to revise the design every 25 years, so we're long overdue for a change. One of the ideas behind this is to make something new for the American collector."
Citizens nationwide are already putting in their two cents worth. South Carolina's signature palmetto tree may make it to the mint, and some Kansans are pushing for a Wizard of Oz. Others want the wheat field quarter.
As for the Rocky Mountain State, "I think a buffalo would be a good symbol," says Melissa Rose Cook, a Hygiene, Colo., resident. "Or a cowboy.... What about a cowboy on a bucking horse? That's good for Colorado.... Or maybe a bear. That would be good, too."
In the end, decisionmakers may be tempted just to flip a coin.