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What do wine, the Seattle Storm and Mount St. Helens have in common? They could soon be celebrated on Washington license plates.

UPDATED: Tue., March 19, 2019

By Ryan Blake The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA – The Legislature may give some Washington drivers the ability to be a bit more special.

Shortly before a key deadline to advance bills Wednesday, the House passed bills to add four new license plates to the 47 already in use.

If approved by the Senate, Washington motorists could buy commemorative plates featuring:

  • The Seattle Storm, the state’s sole professional basketball team and the 2018 WNBA Champion;
  • A scenic representation of the San Juan Islands, with money going to a local conservation group;
  • Mount St. Helens, with proceeds going to the mountain’s science and learning center; or
  • A wine-themed plate, which would help the Washington Wine Commission and benefit the wine science facility at WSU Tri-Cities

The last generated criticism from some who were concerned about a vehicle license plate featuring alcohol. Supporters tossed around “whine” and “sour grapes” puns.

The plate sends the wrong message, said Rep. Derek Stanford, D-Bothell.

“I don’t think it makes sense to be putting a license plate about wine onto cars.” he said.

Chris Loftis, media officer for the Washington State Patrol, called the plate an “interesting dichotomy and ironic in some ways.”

The patrol would work with whatever is approved, he added.

“We’re the State Patrol. We don’t have opinions, we have responsibilities,” Loftis said. “It really doesn’t matter what plate is on the back of the car, we’re watching the behavior on the road and doing all we can to keep impaired drivers off the road.”

Nonprofits, professional sports teams working with a nonprofit, and government agencies must collect 3,500 signatures and pay a $6,300 start-up fee to the Department of Licensing before asking the Legislature for a new plate.

As of last week, there were 140,988 vehicles with specialty plates out of more than 8 million registered vehicles in Washington, the department said. On top of standard licensing fees, specialty plates cost an extra $40 for new plates and $30 for the annual renewals, with the state collecting a small portion and the rest going to the organization. In fiscal year 2018, specialty plates generated $5.3 million, with the state collecting about 9 percent of the money, according to the department.

Organizations use this money to sponsor their mission, such as scholarships, and some use it for administrative expenses, such as rent and salaries.

Washington State University’s plate is the most popular specialty plate in the state with more than 22,000 in use. That’s more than double those for the University of Washington.

Eight schools in the state have their own license plate, including Eastern Washington and Gonzaga universities. EWU’s has been in circulation since 1996 and is on 1,482 vehicles. Gonzaga University Alumni Association’s plate is on 1,548 vehicles and was approved for use in 2006.

The Seattle Seahawk’s 15,000 plates lead those celebrating the state’s professional sports teams. The new Seattle Mariners plate and an older plate recognizing the former Safeco Field combine for less than 1,500. The Seattle Sounders plate has more than 2,000 issuances. Money for the Seahawks’ plates goes to InvestEd, a nonprofit education association, and the Association of Washington Generals, a Seattle-based group that honors Washington residents for outstanding service.

Other plates benefit state parks and wildlife conservation groups. Some plates celebrate niche activities such as square dancing or tennis.

Loftis said the State Patrol appreciates the value of the plates to the organizations that create them and said it will work to keep officers up to date on all the designs.

“Regardless of what your plate says, regardless of what kind of car you’re driving, regardless of what you do for a living and what you do for recreation, when you get behind the wheel drive responsibly, drive soberly and drive safely,” Loftis said.

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