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

SALT LAKE CITY – Utah is about to temporarily suspend its personalized license plate program again.

The Utah House of Representatives passed HB26 Tuesday by a 53-18 vote and sent it to the 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 streamlining the process by which sponsored special group license plates are created.

It’s not much different from a bill Thurston sponsored last year, which also passed 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 lower house “didn’t get around to it” before the 2022 legislature ended.

Thurston explained that the purpose of the bill is to “streamline” the state’s license plate process. It would provide more options for standard plates in Utah and also change the process for specialty plates so lawmakers don’t have to spend time scrutinizing bills every year while making it clearer where the money from those plates goes.

It would even allow a county to exempt some motor vehicles from emissions testing, regardless of whether they have old license plates or not.

The bill also addresses a potential issue with the state’s personalized license plate program. Thurston said the main problem 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 the state has three options for dealing with the situation. Utah could do nothing; However, he argued during a meeting of the House Transportation Committee last week that there was a “reasonable chance” that the state would be sued unless the legislature changed its program where it could lose this court battle. The state can also simply approve any license plate application if it chooses, he added.

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

This would give Utah time to adjust its criteria to future federal court decisions, he added. Any existing personalized license plates approved prior to the proposed ban would still be permitted if the law were passed.

But not everyone agrees with this approach.

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

Colwell claims there are certainly some plates that could bypass the line; However, he says most represent a driver’s individuality. They highlight a person’s hobbies, interests, favorite sports club, nickname, or humor in a way that differs from a bumper sticker. He also believes the vast majority of people would not try to apply for vulgar license plates, citing what happened in Maine when they lifted the rules.

According to the Associated Press, Maine lifted its regulation in 2015 over similar concerns, only to reverse that decision in 2021. The state eventually determined that among the 124,000 vanity license plates in the state, there were only about 400 offensive plates worth recalling, or less than 1% of all personalized plates.

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

“I think most people wouldn’t bother seeing vulgar things on license plates, but I feel like punishing the entire population to save us from a tiny chance is not a good choice, (a lawsuit),” Colwell told KSL.com on Wednesday. “The likelihood of that happening is so slim.”

He added that he hopes the Utah Senate will change the bill and remove the personalized license plate component.

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

The chamber must vote on the measure by March 3rd.

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