Washington state

Wine license plates could give WSU Tri-Cities something to cheer

What happens after wine grapes are harvested

Freshly harvested Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec grapes wait to be processed at the Halter Ranch winery in Paso Robles, Calif.
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Freshly harvested Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec grapes wait to be processed at the Halter Ranch winery in Paso Robles, Calif.

Washington drivers could soon be able to toast the state’s $5 billion wine industry with specialty license plates.

The state Legislature is poised to commission a series of new specialty plates, including one that celebrates the wine industry.

If approved, vehicle owners who want the specialty plate would pay an initial $40 fee and $30 to renew license tabs annually with the Department of Licensing. It would become available this fall.

Proceeds would support wine-related programs at Washington State University’s Tri-Cities campus in Richland as well as Yakima Valley College, Walla Walla Community College and South Seattle College.

Rep. Kelly Chambers, R-Puyallup, sponsored the bill after spotting similar plates in Oregon, where she owns a business.

If they’re as popular in Washington as in Oregon, wine plates will be among the most popular offered, Chambers told the Senate Transportation Committee, which held hearings Tuesday on several license plate proposals.

The deadline to pass out of committee is April 9. The 2019 Legislature wraps on April 28.

Wine industry vital to Washington economy

Chambers said there is good reason to toast the wine industry.

There are 55,000 acres of grapes, 26,000 jobs and more than 900 wineries that collectively produce 17.5 million cases of wine annually.

The state authorizes dozens of specialty license plates that honor wildlife, universities and professional sports, with proceeds earmarked to support nonprofits associated with the subject.

The wine plates would generate an estimated $60,000 for WSU Tri-Cities, which would spend it in partnership with the Washington Wine Commission, said spokesman Jeffrey Dennison.

Rep. Bill Jenkin, R-Prosser, and Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, co-sponsored the H.B. 2050, which passed the House on an 96-9 vote earlier this month.

In the House, the wine-oriented license plate was unanimously supported by the rest of the Mid-Columbia’s all-Republican delegation.

Reps. Matt Boehnke, of Kennewick, Mary Dye, of Pomeroy, Bill Jenkin, of Prosser, Brad Klippert, of Kennewick, and Skyler Rude, of Walla Walla, joined Jenkin and Schmick in supporting the idea.

Mixed message on driving and alcohol?

Not everyone thinks touting wine on moving vehicles is a good idea.

The national office of Mothers Against Drunk Driving said it’s concerned about mixed messages.

“At a time when drunk driving deaths are increasing across the country, we would urge legislators to think about the message the specialty license plates could send, “ it said.

Another group wants the plate tweaked to de-emphasize wine.

The plates should honor Washington vineyards rather than wines, said the Washington Association for Substance Abuse and Violence Prevention.

“The optics are not good to be talking about alcohol in the context of driving,” lobbyist Seth Dawson told the transportation committee.

Chambers, the original sponsor, said the design hasn’t been finalized. The license plate will feature a vineyard landscape and not wine, bottles or glasses, she said.

More plates on the table

The wine plate is one of several under consideration this session.

Similar bills would establish specialty plates to commemorate the 1981 eruption of Mt. St. Helens, the Seattle Storm basketball team, resident Puget Sound orcas and children’s television legend J.P. Patches.

Other license plate bills would expand eligibility for programs that discount license plate fees for military families, including Gold Star families who have lost a loved one in service, Purple Heart award recipients injured in action and disabled veterans.

Wendy Culverwell writes about local government and politics, focusing on how those decisions affect your life. She also covers key business and economic development changes that shape our community. Her restaurant column and health inspection reports are reader favorites. She’s been a news reporter in Washington and Oregon for 25 years.