March 6, 2011; Source: Arizona Republic | Nonprofits are interested in how the new Tea Party movement is treating the idea of government subsidies. Tea Partiers have been elected to Congress and to state legislatures as fiscal conservatives, swinging a broad axe against wasteful spending.

Sometimes, when a legislator has his or her hands on the governmental purse, the attraction of tapping the government revenues is hard to resist. In Arizona, Senate Republicans introduced a bill to create a Tea Party license plate, with the Tea Party slogan, "Don't Tread on Me."

The bill, introduced by Senator Don Shooter, would create a fund from the proceeds of the Don't Tread on Me (DTM) plates ($17 out of every $25 payment) to be administered by a state-created Arizona Tea Party Committee to make grants to eligible nonprofits that would "promote Tea Party governing principles".

Charitable or politically motivated? Senate President Russell Pearce (R-Mesa) says the "plate is about furthering the principles of freedom, about the movement across this country." Senator Shooter is not shy about where his loyalties lie, thanking "campaign supporters and the Tea Party with this odd statement on his website: "I will do my best to defend Liberty, and the principles of our Founders. Hold me accountable, (but pray for me too, Ha Ha) – and lets start looking for some more local 'Tea Party' candidates for 2012".

Apparently, it's charitable if your nonprofit happens to be an enthusiast of the Tea Party's agenda, seen as simply unbiased "constitutional principles" if you like the Tea Party, but seen as a "specific political agenda" by critics such as State Senator Kristen Sinema (D-Phoenix) if you don't. Interestingly however, Shooter's bill would have had the state of Arizona pick up the $32,000 cost of creating the DTM plates, and that even turned off some of his Tea Party colleagues in the legislature.

Senator Frank Antenori (R-Tucson) displays a Don't Tread on Me flag on his desk, but is opposed the idea of the state picking up the license plate tab, saying, "One of the principles we preach about in the Tea Party movement is that you pay your own way in society, and you're not a moocher." Shooter quickly amended the bill to require DTM supporters to pay the $32,000 up-front cost, but that might very well end up being paid (or reimbursed, more accurately) from the DTM fund grantmaking. Having the state directly or indirectly subsidize a political movement is a troublesome development in American politics, even if the Tea Party fronts the cost.—Rick Cohen