It all started after NASA's Space Shuttle Challenger exploded above Cape Canaveral 12 years ago, killing its crew of seven. That year the Florida Legislature passed a bill to create the state's first commemorative license plate. The $31.5 million proceeds from the tag so far have funded technological research and space education projects.
Since then, the idea of bumpers as billboard space for fund-raisers has grown incredibly popular. Today, the state offers 40 specialty tags that help generate more than $17 million for a variety of causes, from the protection of the endangered manatees and the large mouth bass to the Boy Scouts of America to the Police Athletic League and the Florida Marlins. Motorists can buy the tag of their choice for an additional $20.
The Sunshine State isn't alone in this phenomenon - South Carolina has 138 specialty tags, Maryland 366, Arkansas 50, and Virginia 140. But never before had auto tags become such emotional hot buttons as they did last week in Tallahassee. That's when the Legislature approved a bill that would create the state's 41st license plate tag.
Its message: "Choose Life."
Sponsors say it's an innocent attempt to raise money to help pregnant women find help in placing their babies for adoption rather than undergo an abortion. But opponents call it an irresponsible piece of legislation that opens the floodgate for all kinds of political tags. It's now up to Gov. Lawton Chiles to sign the bill into law or veto it.
But already, as it is being brandished as a symbol of support or opposition to abortion rights, the controversial tag has elevated one of the nation's most emotional debates to new levels.
Indeed, some see the "Choose Life" bill as a sign of the resurgence of anti-abortion forces at a time when the Florida Legislature is attacking abortion rights more than anytime in the past decade. On the Legislative session's opening day for instance, the Republican leadership overrode Governor Chiles's 1997 veto of the so-called partial-birth abortion ban. At the end of the session, it sent the governor a bill requiring that parents be notified of their teenage child's abortion 48 hours in advance of the procedure.
In many states, license plates function as the identity of that state. Perhaps no other topic carries with it such a huge package of emotion. To some, Florida's "Choose Life" auto-tag debate raises a touchy question: Will it be the kick-out of an idea that could spread like wildfire from state to state?
The tag "has a message that advances a clear political cause: it's an anti-abortion message," says state Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, one of 44 House members - many of them women - who voted against the bill. Seventy-seven voted in favor of it. "I don't think we should be sanctioning political messages on Florida's license plates," she says.
In Florida, as in most states, specialty tags can be a good means of raising money. To propose a new license plate, organizations must first raise $30,000 (to cover the cost of reviewing the application and developing the license plate) and gather 10,000 signatures. But the rewards are major, particularly for Florida's environmental groups, sports teams, and universities. With $3.6 million raised last year, the "Save the Panther" license plate was the biggest dollar producer. Others include:
* The Miami Dolphins this year reaped $335,000 in 1996, half of it going to the Florida Sports Foundation and the other half to a professional sports development trust fund.
* "Invest in Children" got $472,936 in 1996 that was earmarked for juvenile-crime prevention and early intervention programs.
* The University of Florida raised $1.4 million in 1996 that was used for "academic enhancement."
Proponents of the new "Choose Life" bill say its message is neither more nor less political than the causes advanced by other tags. "Saving the panther, working on the environment, the natural habitat - these are political statements," says Carole Griffin, an Eagle Forum lobbyist and long-time advocate of anti-abortion legislation. "If I'm going to pay for this license plate ["Choose Life"], I want to get across the message I want."
"If the governor vetoes this bill, he needs to go after all the other license plates with all these political messages and make them illegal," Ms. Griffin says.
"It's bad to endanger the panther, the little deer, the Keys, but what is more important than killing off human beings?" asks resident Martha Augenstein
The bill sent to Chiles would distribute proceeds collected for the tags to programs aiding and counseling women considering abortion.
The money would be sent to Florida's 67 counties according to the share sold in each county. It would be up to county commissioners to decide which agencies would be better equipped to receive the money. Seventy percent must be spent on the material needs of pregnant women whom agencies help in the placement of children for adoption.
But opponents insist that the new tag could open the way for more politically sensitive tags. "Till now, we've always avoided controversial, political license plates," says state Rep. Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach. "I believe in freedom of speech, but I don't think the state should be telling people what to do."