Dave Kitchell: The vanity of the state
Thursday, July 24, 2014 11:38 AM
LOGANSPORT – Any Hoosier who wanted to walk into an Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles branch and plunk down a little extra spendable income to reserve a specialty vanity license plate for the last year has had to deal with this reality: You can’t pay the state money to do it.
That’s because the vanity plate program has been delayed while state officials sort out the controversy over what might be considered offensive language on the plate. Meanwhile, state coffers have suffered because Hoosiers who want to give the state their money can’t.
This story is relevant because it serves as a terrific example of how inept state government can be when it is given a challenge, even one as innocuous as determining what the rules are for spending your money on a state service.
This isn’t the first time we’ve had issues with license branches in this state. Hoosiers who were around in the late 1980s can recall the time when the “old boy” system of managing license branches with county political chairs and/or their spouses was ended. Then when specialty plates finally came into being with the Bayh administration, there were those who thought we should stop selling some of the plates that weren’t popular, including the Butler University plate. That was before the Bulldogs played in two Final Fours, and you don’t hear anyone lobbying for that change now. Hoosiers who didn’t support a license plate for gay youth also made their objections known.
But when a Greenfield police officer couldn’t secure “Oink” for his plate, it set off a debate that continues. Granted, it may be offensive to some officers to be referred to as pigs, but it shouldn’t be if you own a farrow-to-finish operation that contributes to the state ag economy. Offending, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, which is to say that many license plates might be offensive to someone, somewhere, somehow. But oink, really?
Restricting free speech on vanity license plates is a bit like editing letters to the editor in newspapers: Eliminate profanity, racial slurs and religious attacks and as one pop song goes, “Let the words fall out honestly.”
Vanity plates are simply a means of indicating our humor and pride and assigning more value to each driver than another number. The plates serve a purpose in that drivers don’t have to struggle to remember what’s on their license plate because they paid good money to remember the tag.
The head-shaking part of this story is a report that Indiana may consider eliminating the vanity plate program because of the controversy. Wait a minute, you’re telling us a farm family that puts food on my plate can’t put the words “We Farm” on a plate? What’s wrong with this picture?
Indiana legislators, the governor and the head of the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles could have their own specialty plates issued by taxpayers: “INEPT.” Why has it taken a year, and probably will take longer, to come up with simple regulations for purchasing vanity license plates? Is it any wonder legislators struggled to come up with a consensus on the Defense of Marriage Act?
Sometimes, doing nothing is the right thing to do, whether it’s in a business, a church, a charity or a family. Doing nothing in government tends to get the attention of people who expect something to be done by people who are paid to do it. But in Indiana, we put off doing what needs to be done until we have to deal with it, witness legislation such as the Affordable Care Act which forced Indiana’s hand to come up with an alternative to providing health care for Hoosiers. Say what you want about Obamacare, and many have, but it has succeeded in getting Indiana lawmakers to deal with a problem they have ignored for years.
There are those who want to see the cardinal replaced as the state bird. For those who want vanity plates and for all those who expect more from state government than what they’re getting, the nominee for the new state bird is probably the ostrich, sticking its head in the sand. That would symbolize state officials who don’t take a stand on anything other than their right to do nothing and get paid for it.
Carly Simon once sang a hit song titled “You’re So Vain” that targeted actor Warren Beatty. Don’t look for Warren any time soon in Indiana, but the chances of him or Carly Simon showing up here may be better than legislators resolving a fiasco of state decision-making that leaves us all thinking how vain state officials are when they claim to be running the state.
Kitchell is an award-winning columnist based in Logansport.