ST. GEORGE — A proposal to create a new license plate recognizing Utah’s dark skies has received an early nod of approval at the Legislature, but a mixed response from Southern Utah lawmakers.
Sponsored by Rep. Stephen G. Handy, R-Layton, License Plates Amendments – designated as HB 198 in the 2021 Legislature – would create a new standard license plate option for Utah drivers. Handy told St. George News that the “Utah Dark Sky” license plate is intended to celebrate Utah’s abundance of dark sky places and promote the state as an astrotourism destination.
Handy said the slogan on the proposed license plate, “Darkest Skies in America,” is a worthy claim. The International Dark-Sky Association recognizes over 130 designated dark sky places around the world. Of those, 21 are located in Utah, more than any other state.
“I don’t know if we can pass it, but I thought we ought to at least have the conversation,” he said.
On Wednesday, Handy presented HB 198 for approval by the House Transportation Committee in a meeting conducted electronically. His presentation included a short video highlighting dark sky attractions across Utah along with design mockups of the license plate. Handy told the committee that if the bill passes, the Utah Division of Motor Vehicles will be responsible for the final design of the license plate, subject to the approval of the legislature.
Several members of the public spoke in support of the bill, including advocates from the International Dark-Sky Association Utah Chapter and Rich Csenge, director of the Stellar Vista Observatory in Kanab.
HB 198 passed with a favorable recommendation in a vote of 11-1. The sole dissenting vote was cast by Rep. Jeffrey D. Stenquist, R-Draper, who did not elaborate on his decision during the hearing.
The International Dark-Sky Association Utah Chapter approached Handy with the request for a new license plate in the fall of 2020. Member-at-large Anil Seth told St. George News that a license plate advertising Utah as a dark sky destination would help the state further capitalize on the growing popularity of astrotourism.
“Dark skies are an amenity that brings people to Utah that wouldn’t otherwise visit,” he said. “From that perspective, it’s a very large return on investment.”
Seth said the license plate also recognizes how fortunate Utahns are to live among a myriad of designated dark sky places.
“It recognizes that we all have access to this resource,” he said. “We can all go within about an hour and stargaze in a really dark spot and see the Milky Way, and that’s not true for most Americans.”
If passed, HB 198 is scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1, 2022. According to the fiscal note, the legislation would incur a one-time expense of $175,000 from the General Fund during fiscal year 2022 to design and produce an initial run of 25,000 license plates. The state would collect $7 per license plate purchased by Utah drivers.
Despite garnering early support in committee, HB 198 was received with mixed reactions from Southern Utah legislators.
Rep. Travis M. Seegmiller, R-St. George, said that he will wait to make a final decision until HB 198 is debated on the House floor, but he’s “quite strongly” leaning towards voting against the bill after studying the proposal and design mockups.
“I think our existing license plate options are truly stellar, including the Delicate Arch and ‘In God We Trust’ options that we currently enjoy, and so any new Utah plates need to be equally excellent,” he said. “But the mockups that I’ve seen of the potential new ‘Utah Dark Sky’ license plate appear messy and mediocre by comparison; and further, I think the abrupt addition of a major new brand like this would dilute our state’s other top brands.”
Seegmiller also expressed concern over the costs associated with creating a new license plate, which he said contradicts his agenda to shrink government spending in order to lower taxes at every opportunity. He continued that while the plate presents an opportunity to showcase an attribute that many Utahns enjoy about their home state, he doesn’t believe it’s necessary.
“At some point, we can’t just make a new license plate for every lobbying group or trade association that comes up with a neat idea,” he added.
Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, told St. George News he also opposes the bill on the grounds that he views the proposed license plate as a political statement more than a personal statement of interest. He said that the term “dark sky” now carries a politically charged message due to groups like the International Dark-Sky Association which have a “stated purpose of affecting public policy.”
“One of the most appealing things about the place I choose to live is the stunning dark sky. I don’t want that term commandeered and changed into a catchphrase for politically motivated and morally bankrupt environmental activists,” he added.
In contrast, Rep. Bradley G. Last, R-Hurricane, told St. George News he recognizes the value of advertising Utah’s unique attractions like red rocks and ski destinations on license plates. Other states offer drivers many design options, he said, so why not Utah?
Last added that he plans to vote in favor of HB 198 when it comes before the House.
“There is a cost to setting up the license plates, but I think that license plates can be an incredible marketing tool for the state,” he said. “So I think in the case of dark skies, it’s a great idea. Let’s go drive around in other states with these cool license plates.”
Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George, told St. George News that he is not well enough acquainted with the bill yet to indicate as to how he might vote. Reps. V. Lowry Snow and Rex Shipp had not responded to requests for comment at the time of this report.
Utah currently produces three standard license plates – “Life Elevated Skier,” “Life Elevated Arches” and “In God We Trust” – along with over 40 specialty group plates that support various organizations. If the bill passes, Utah would become the only state with a standard license plate bearing a dark skies theme.
HB 198 will next move to the Utah House floor for its third reading.
For a complete list of contacts for Southern Utah representatives and senators, click here.
Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2021 Utah Legislature here.
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