Thousands of Arizona’s motor vehicle owners have purchased a specialty license plate believing a portion of the extra fee they paid for it would go to a good cause. But some specialty plate owners would be surprised to learn where their money really went.
Earlier this year, for example, state Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, introduced SB 1463 to repeal the creation of the “In God We Trust” specialty plate after an inquiry prompted by the Secular Coalition for Arizona prompted the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) to reveal that the fundamentalist Christian non-profit group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) received the donations generated from their sales. This revelation upset many people because in 2017 the Southern Poverty Law Center declared the ADF to be an anti-LGBT hate group since it supports the recriminalization of homosexuality and promotes a “religious liberty” agenda that justifies discrimination against LGBT people. (In 2017 the ADF disrupted a Tempe Union High School District public meeting about sex education, and they are representing two Phoenix conservative Christian wedding invitation designers in their legal battle against a 2013 city ordinance that bans businesses from discriminating against LGBT customers.)
Arizona has more than 60 specialty plates, but ADOT doesn’t decide what plates are available. The plates are created by the Arizona Legislature after a non-profit organization succeeds in convincing enough legislators to pass a bill to authorize a new specialty plate for their cause. Then the non-profit must pay a $32,000 fee for the production and implementation of the new plate before they can start to collect their $17 share of the plate’s $25 fee.
Usually, the nonprofit organization that receives the money from the plate sales is identified in the law the Legislature passes to create the plate. But that didn’t happen when the Legislature passed HB 2046 in 2008 to create the “In God We Trust” plates. Rep. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, succeeded in getting the bill amended to include the creation of the plates without identifying the non-profit group that would receive the resultant donations, or describing their purpose. This legal ambiguity delayed the issuance of the plates until after 2011, when SB 1402, sponsored by Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, was passed. This bill still didn’t identify the group that would receive the donations from the plates, but said the purpose of the plates was, “to promote the national motto ‘In God We Trust,’ First Amendment rights and the heritage of this state and nation.”
This was the purpose ADOT described for potential purchasers of the plates. But ADOT didn’t include the fact the ADF was the group receiving the donations from their sales until after the controversy generated by the introduction of Sen. Mendez’ bill – which never received a hearing in the Republican-controlled 2019 Arizona Legislature.
The History Of Arizona’s “Environmental” Specialty Plate
Arizona’s “Environmental” specialty plate is another one that generates donations for a purpose that’s different from what many people think it is. These plates were created in 1990 as part of HB 2675, sponsored by Rep. Karan English, D-Flagstaff, and signed by Democratic Gov. Rose Mofford, to mandate environmental education in Arizona’s public schools. It required the Arizona Department of Education to assist local school districts with the implementation of environmental curriculums using the funds collected from the sales of the plates. This was followed by the passage of SB 1176 the following year to establish the Arizona Environmental Education Task Force. This diverse 17-member committee was tasked with drafting a “coordinated environmental education program” for the state, and in early 1992 they issued their Comprehensive Plan for Environmental Education. Later that year, Republican Gov. Fife Symington, who had won a runoff election in February 1991, unveiled the winning design for the new “Environmental” plates, expressing enthusiasm for their purpose while attaching one to his state car.
Ultra-conservative Republicans in the Legislature, however, were opposed to the new environmental education program and in 1993 they passed HB 2198, sponsored by state Rep. Lela Steffey, R-Mesa, which removed the program’s funding starting in 1996 by ordering that issuance of the “Environmental” specialty plates be stopped at the end of 1995. The passage of this bill prompted the director of the Department of Education, Democratic State Superintendent of Public Instruction C. Diane Bishop, to send a written request to state Senate President John Greene to rescind the termination of the plates during the 1994 legislative session.
In the meantime, Supt. Bishop began setting up the new environmental education program for the state’s public schools. It included teacher training, regional environmental education resource centers, and the opportunity for schools to apply for environmental education grants.
But in the spring of 1994 Republican legislators continued their assault against the environmental education program by passing SB 1122. This bill, sponsored by Sen. Keith Bee, R-Tucson, rescinded the termination of the “Environmental” specialty plates, but it revised the purpose of the environmental education program. It removed the words, “develop positive attitudes and values toward the environment and encourage civic and social responsibility toward environmental issues,” and replaced them with, “the presentation of various economic and scientific issues.” It also revised the meaning of environmental education to remove the consideration of “resource depletion” and “urban and rural planning.” SB 1122 also established the Arizona Advisory Council on Environmental Education (AACEE). It had nine members appointed by the Governor, with the Governor having the power to designate the chair and vice-chair. But the AACEE, was given few specific responsibilities – just a political advisory role.
But the biggest change implemented by SB 1122 was an amendment pushed by agriculture, ranching, and mining interests that created the Environmental Education Curriculum Review Committee to “revise any environmental education curriculum adopted before the effective date of this act so that the curriculum complies with the provisions of this act.” The committee was required to produce a report by February 1996. These changes delayed the implementation of Supt. Bishop’s environmental education program.
Republican supporters of the bill defended it by claiming that it was needed in order to bring “balance” to environmental education in the state’s schools. Senate Majority Leader Tom Patterson, R-Phoenix, said there was a concern that the state’s environmental education guidelines had an, “Earth-worshipping tone,” and were “really more advocacy than education.” And Rep. Russell “Rusty” Bowers, R-Mesa, said they, “represented theory as fact and encouraged political activism.”
In the fall of 1994 Republican Lisa Graham Keegan won the election for State Superintendent of Public Instruction. When she assumed office in early 1995 she cancelled Bishop’s program and proposed to simply distribute the money from the plate sales, with no strings attached, to the state’s schools on a student population basis. She explained that she was philosophically opposed to the environmental education mandate, and that, “My preference is to take the law off the books.” The chair of the AACEE pointed out that her proposal didn’t comply with the law.
At the same time, the Environmental Education Curriculum Review Committee, chaired by Rep. Bowers, was having meetings. The committee spent most of its time reviewing an alternative set of environmental education guidelines drafted by Michael Sanera, who was an associate professor of political science and public administration at Northern Arizona University. Sanera is probably best known as the author of the 1996 book Facts, Not Fear: Teaching Children about the Environment, which is touted as “a guidebook countering the irresponsible claims of environmental extremists.”
But the committee never produced its report, and Supt. Graham Keegan’s proposal wasn’t implemented, because in early 1995 Republican legislators passed more bills to dismantle the environmental education program. SB 1348, sponsored by state Sen. John Huppenthal, R-Chandler, made environmental education optional in Arizona’s schools. And HB 2274, sponsored by Rep. Bowers, completely revised the program. The bill diverted all monies collected from the sales of “Environmental” specialty plates to the Arizona State Land Department. It instructed the Department to encourage each of the approximately 30 local Natural Resource Conservation Districts (NRCDs) in the state to establish an education center, so they could then apply to the Department for environmental education grants. Critics pointed out that NRCDs, which are administered by the Land Department, were set up to serve the economic interests of local private landowners – especially ranchers. The Hereford NRCD in southeastern Arizona, for example, supported the Bureau of Land Management’s 2018 proposal to increase cattle grazing on the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area by about 375%. Rep. Bowers defended the change by claiming that NRCDs would provide a “broader spectrum of educational opportunities.”
HB 2274 allowed the Land Department to direct up to 50% of the money generated from the sales of “Environmental” plates to the NRCDs. The rest of the money was to be administered for the Department by the AACEE. HB 2274 had also revised the membership of the AACEE. It increased its membership to 10, and allowed the Senate President and Speaker of the House to each appoint three members, instead of the Governor appointing all of them. The Governor, however, continued to have the power to designate the chair and vice-chair. The reconfigured AACEE was tasked with awarding environmental education grants to local schools. All of the grants distributed from the Land Department were required to be used for “environmental education programs that are based on current scientific information and include discussions of economic and social implications.”
In 1997, however, Democratic legislators complained that more than $1.3 million collected from the sales of the plates was sitting idle because the AACEE had not awarded any environmental education grants to the state’s schools, while the Land Department had already started distributing money to the NRCDs. Part of the problem, the Democrats claimed, was that the Republican leaders of the Senate and House had dragged their feet appointing AACEE members, and hadn’t provided the advisory committee with paid staff. AACEE members said they would probably begin disbursing the grants by the end of the year.
Arizona’s schools subsequently received environmental education grants from the AACEE until 2002. That year, Republican Gov. Jane Hull proposed to terminate the AACEE and end the environmental education grants to local schools. All of the money collected from the sales of “Environmental” plates would be allocated to fund the state’s NRCDs, although some of it would still be allocated for the environmental educations grants distributed by the NRCDs. Hull defended the proposal as a budget balancing strategy to reduce the amount of money allocated to the NRCDs from the state’s general fund. But it drew widespread criticism and Monica Pastor, the AACEE chairwoman, pointed out they had distributed $399,000 in environmental education grants to local schools the previous year which had helped fund 472 student field trips. Hull and the Republican-controlled Legislature subsequently buried the measure in the state’s FY 2003 budget bill.
No money from the sales of “Environmental” specialty plates has gone to the schools since then, it’s all been sent to the Land Department, which has forwarded it to the state’s Natural Resource Conservation Districts. The NRCDs are supposed to use some of it for environmental education grants. But that’s not always the case, as the recent annual reports from the Hereford NRCD’s education center, for example, show that little environmental education was done with the money they received.
According to ADOT, sales of the “Environmental” specialty plates generated about $143,000 in FY2016, $145,000 in FY 2017, and $142,000 FY 2018. It’s likely that a lot of the vehicle owners who purchased them weren’t aware that the money wasn’t used to help fund environmental education programs in local schools.
The FY 2021, FY 2022, FY 2023 & FY2024 state budget bills passed by the Arizona Legislature directed the State Land Department to use $30,000 of the $650,000 that was appropriated each year to its Natural Resource Conservation Districts for their NRCD environmental education centers. The environmental license plate fund was reported to have contributed only $260,600 each year to NRCD funding.
On May 26, 2020, I filed an official complaint with Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich regarding the Arizona State Land Department's failure to ensure that the state's Natural Resource Conservation Districts comply with the state's open meeting law.
On August 6, 2021, the Arizona Attorney General’s office finally responded to my complaint when it issued letters which notified the Apache, Chino Winds, and Whitewater Draw NRCDs, which I had named in my complaint, that they were out of compliance with the state’s open meeting law. The NRCDs were given 30 days to verify their compliance. According to the Coconino NRCD's August 26, 2021, meeting minutes, Republican state Rep. Gail Griffin “agreed to intervene” in the matter.
As of September 20, 2021, the Apache, Chino Winds, and Whitewater Draw NRCDs had posted agendas and minutes to the Arizona Association of Conservation Districts website. Many of the state's other local NRCDs, however, still hadn't posted anything there, although a few NRCDs have their own websites. Another Open Meeting Law complaint was filed with the Arizona Attorney General's office September 21, 2021, regarding the noncompliant NRCDs.