- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 28, 2017

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska lawmakers gave initial approval Tuesday to a bill that would let drivers display opposition to abortion on their license plates.

Senators voted 37-7 after two days of debate to advance a bill that would require the state Department of Motor Vehicles to design “Choose Life” license plates. It still requires two more votes, and opponents have vowed to filibuster it each time it comes up.

The plates would cost $5 more than standard license plates, and revenue would supplement federal funding for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Dan Watermeier of Syracuse, says the plates would signal support for all children.

Nebraska now has two types of specialty license plates. Plates approved by the state Legislature recognize the University of Nebraska, the state’s 150th anniversary, mountain lions, military service members and breast cancer awareness. Organizations can apply for specialty license plates if they prepay 250 applications and provide proof at least 250 people will pay an annual $70 renewal fee. Groups including the Nebraska Cattlemen, Friends of the Union Pacific Railroad Museum and Creighton University got their own plates this way.

Proponents of the Choose Life plates should get 250 signatures and create an organizational plate instead of asking the Legislature to create a plate for them, said Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln.

“Why does this need to be state-sanctioned speech?” Pansing Brooks said.

Bob Blank, a consultant for Living Word ministries in Omaha and chairman of the Nebraska chapter of the National Choose Life effort, has been lobbying for Choose Life plates for the past decade. He said the group couldn’t gather the signatures or money needed to apply for organizational plates, but he expected the cheaper state plates would be popular if Watermeier’s bill passed.

“This plate may outnumber any other specialty plate that’s out there because there’s more pro-lifers out there in Nebraska than there are any other interests,” Blank said.

Twenty-nine states already offer “Choose Life” license plates, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights. Abortion rights groups have sued several of these states over the plates, and Nebraska could be next, said Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont. Virginia, Pennsylvania and Montana have abortion rights license plates.

“Are these license plates that don’t change access to abortion worth the dollars that it would cost the state in legal battles?” she asked.

Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha said his voting record shows his opposition to abortion, but he couldn’t support using state-issued license plates for political speech.

“What’s next?” Krist asked. “Pro-choice? I like my Buick? I’m pro-death penalty? I like to kill people?”

The Legislature already cleared the way for political messaging when Sen. Ernie Chambers, a long-time opponent of specialty plates, introduced the mountain lion conservation plates last year, said Sen. Lydia Brasch of Bancroft.

“You fought for a mountain lion,” Brasch said. “I fight for unborn children.”

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Follow Julia Shumway on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JMShumway

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