March 23, 2012; Source: Spokesman-Review

In the ongoing debate over vanity license plates that benefit designated nonprofits, Idaho could step out among the various states by putting at least a tiny restriction on these specialty plates. The NPQ Newswire has regularly covered the proliferation of states issuing these plates (for example, see reports from South Carolina, Indiana, Arizona and Texas) for religious organizations and sometimes ideologically motivated nonprofits.  The plates raise issues (for us and others) about using the state government’s imprimatur for private interests, including religious organizations and, in at least one case (Arizona), a political movement (the Tea Party).

In Idaho, which has had its own surfeit of nonprofit license plates, State Sen. Jim Hammond is trying again with legislation to limit the plates. An earlier version of his bill would have banned all nonprofit license plates and all “cause” plates but for those benefitting official government functions. That language is now out, so the bill simply bans plates that would benefit new nonprofits. Nonprofits getting specialty plates would have to show that they have had 501(c)(3) status for at least two previous years.

The victim, so to speak, of Hammond’s bill would be former Idaho Congressman Bill Sali, who formed a nonprofit with his wife, Terry, on January 25, 2012 to educate the public about the “foundational principles and history” of the U.S. Last year, Sali proposed that Idaho issue “In God We Trust” plates that would benefit his apparently yet-to-have-been-formed American Heritage Foundation. The group would get $22 for the sale of every “In God We Trust” plate and $12 for each renewal. Sali’s nonprofit would, he says, “do things like give away copies of the Constitution.”

Hammond’s bill would also have the nonprofit beneficiaries provide an accounting of how they spent the money they got from the license plate sales. Hammond told the Spokesman-Review, “We’re collecting money for a private organization. They ought to have some history of managing their funds correctly if we’re going to be working with them with public funding.” Although he still supports his bill, he would have liked a restriction against all private nonprofit fundraising efforts through license plates sales.

Currently, 30 such Idaho groups, including a Corvette club and an appaloosa horse club, have such plates, which raise $1.6 million a year for the groups. “I really don’t believe in collecting public funds for private organizations,” Hammond days. “If it’s a general purpose for the citizens of Idaho, great—like the wildlife plate. I have nothing against those clubs, but I don’t think it’s a proper role of government for us to be collecting those funds.”

It would be easy to debate Sali’s interpretation of the Constitution and U.S. history. Commenting on the election of Minnesota’s Keith Ellison, a Muslim, to Congress, and on a Hindu prayer to open up the U.S. Senate one day, Sali raised questions about the deterioration of the “Christian heritage” of the U.S. Sali, who only served one term, went on to claim that the founding fathers were not multicultural, and that multiculturalism is a contradiction of “E pluribus unum.” Hammond’s original bill would have meant that the public wouldn’t have to waste time debating the merits of Sali’s nonprofit and that state legislators might be able to devote their energies to more important things. Maybe, in a fit of rationality, someone will revive the original bill and present it to Idaho Gov. Butch Otter for signature.—Rick Cohen