ST. GEORGE — Legislation proposing the creation of a new dark sky-themed standard issue license plate failed to pass in the Utah House of Representatives by a narrow margin earlier this month.
After unsuccessfully attempting to introduce a substitute, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Stephen G. Handy, R-Layton, told St. George News on Monday that he intends to revisit the topic with some changes in 2022.
License Plates Amendments – designated as HB 198 in the 2021 Legislature – sought to introduce a new standard license plate option for Utah drivers. Handy said the proposed “Utah Dark Sky” license plate was designed to recognize the state’s abundance of designated dark sky places, highlighting the importance of preserving night sky views while capitalizing on the rising popularity of astrotourism.
After receiving a favorable recommendation of 11-1-0 from the House Transportation Committee, the bill moved to the Utah House floor for debate on Feb. 4.
Supporters of the bill argued in favor of the license plate as another way for advertising Utah as an outdoor recreation destination. Rep. Joel K. Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, underscored the abundance of opportunities within the state to enjoy the night sky without light pollution, a rarity in many areas, and said he would put the proposed license plate on his car.
Rep. Scott H. Chew, R-Jensen, expressed concern over the design mockups presented by Handy. He said that given the proposed colors and imagery, license plate numbers would not be easily visible by law enforcement or members of the public for the purpose of identifying a vehicle.
Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, also voiced his opposition to the bill on the grounds that organizations like the International Dark-Sky Association have a stated purpose of affecting public policy relating to dark skies and seek to advance an environmentalist agenda through local and state governments.
Some representatives balked at the bill’s fiscal note, which estimated a one-time expenditure of $175,000 from the General Fund during fiscal year 2022 to pay for the design and production of 25,000 license plates. The state would collect $7 from each Utah driver who purchased a “Utah Dark Sky” license plate for their vehicle.
“I know our projections are higher than expected, but I also don’t know if we should be spending $175,000 on something like a license plate when there are so many other groups, people, interests that are highly in need, and I think this money could be spent elsewhere,” Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy, told the Utah House floor.
HB 198 narrowly failed to pass the Utah House with a final vote tally of 36-35-4.
All Southern Utah legislators voted against the bill with the exception of Reps. V. Lowry Snow, R-St. George, and Merrill F. Nelson, R-Grantsville. Rep. Travis M. Seegmiller, R-St. George, was among the representatives absent or not voting.
The International Dark-Sky Association Utah Chapter first approached Handy with the request for a dark sky license plate in the fall of 2020. Member-at-large Anil Seth told St. George News he was disappointed that the bill failed to pass, adding that the organization intends to continue pursuing this issue with modifications in the future along with opposing any legislation that has the potential to reduce Utahns’ access to dark skies.
In the weeks following the vote, Handy worked to draft a substitute bill that would instead introduce a support special group license plate with a dark skies theme.
The substitute bill sought to establish the Utah Dark Sky License Plate Support Fund, an account to generate revenue for creating a “Utah Dark Sky” standard license plate. The fund would be used to cover the costs of transitioning the special group license plate into a standard license plate whenever enough money had been accrued, rather than the burden falling on the General Fund.
Ultimately, the substitute was not read on the Utah House floor, and the issue has been tabled as the final days of the 2021 Legislature approach.
“I ran into a procedural issue, one of timing, that didn’t allow me to bring it back,” Handy said.
Handy said he plans to introduce a bill proposing the special group license plate early in the 2022 general session and hopes to raise enough money to eventually bring the vision of a complete design celebrating Utah’s dark skies to fruition.
Utah currently produces three standard license plates – “Life Elevated Skier,” “Life Elevated Arches” and “In God We Trust” – along with over 40 special group plates that support various organizations.
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Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2021 Utah Legislature here.
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