The Patriotic California License Plate Snafu

Since 2002, money collected from special tag hasn't been going to fight terror


After Sept. 11, 2001, tens of thousands of patriotic Californians have been paying at least an extra $50 each for memorial license plates - falsely believing their contributions were helping to fight the war on terror.

But legislative paralysis beginning in 2002 prevented the state from spending a penny of the money, expected to total of $7.2 million by the end of the coming 2007-08 fiscal year, according to the Legislative Analyst's Office.

"It boggles the mind," said San Pedro businessman Lou Baglietto, an unhappy purchaser of one of the plates.

A Southern California lawmaker, working with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders, is moving to free up the money authorities said is needed for security.

Some local and regional government agencies in the Los Angeles area are pleading for relatively small amounts - hundreds of thousands of dollars - for security.

Year after year since the 2002 launch of the program, lawmakers failed to agree on varying proposals to use the anti-terrorism plate funds on better security for city buses, or on rail transit or in ports. Unrelated politics and the constant north-south tug-of-war contributed to the logjam.

This month, however, lawmakers swiftly advanced legislation by Assemblywoman Betty Karnette, D-Long Beach, to break the deadlock.

"This bill will address the fact that millions of dollars in existing anti-terrorism plate funds have gone unused," Karnette said.

The lawmaker said her AB587 would "ensure the state is vigilant and efficient" in allocating the money and the flow of

$1.3 million annually into the anti-terrorism plate coffer.

Some memorial license plate purchasers feel duped.

"I bought one of the plates for my Mazda CX-7," said Baglietto, who co-owns Butterfield Communication, which operates in the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.

"I'm pretty amazed that the state isn't spending the money or having to report it isn't," he said. "You'd think every resource available would be used to prevent another terrorism attack, and the ports are a pretty big target."

The plates, which are linked to increased registration renewal costs and higher fees if personalized, are imprinted over an image of the American flag.

Legislative aides said the governor's office and others are eyeing use of the money to fill some smaller holes in security that otherwise might go unplugged.

State Office of Homeland Security officials said they initially wanted $5 million to assist big-city rail transit and intra-city bus systems in bracing against, and responding to, terrorism. Authorities wanted an ongoing $1 million from the program.

Later, the state Homeland Security office asked for $5 million to create a transportation worker identification and credentialing program to assist ports in anti-terrorism efforts. Again, authorities asked for a continuing allocation of $1 million a year.

But in the meantime, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security gave California nearly

$30 million for uses that included port, rail transit and bus security.

In addition, voters last year approved tens of billions of dollars in bonds, with some of the money being directed to enhance the security of transportation and infrastructure systems.

AB587 moved swiftly through Assembly committees this month and was approved by the entire lower house on a bipartisan, 73-4 vote. It now faces tests in the state Senate.