Thursday, June 13, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Don Hannula

Batter Up! Step To The Plate For The Mariners' Ballpark

SOON, even the cons in the Big House will be doing their thing for the Mariners. The prison vehicle-plate shop at Walla Walla will be turning out special licenses to help pay for the M's new ballpark.

The plates are expected to become available near the end of next month.

It's not a big-bucks deal for the new ballpark, which is scheduled to open for the 1999 season. About $280,000 is projected to be contributed this year to the $320 million outdoor ballpark. About $401,000 is expected from the plates next year.

But every little bit helps.

Washington's vehicle-license fees are so outrageously high compared to most other states, the Legislature from time to time likes to distract us from the agony of renewal.

Through our license-plate renewals, we can help good causes and even have a little fun. At a price, of course. No free fun from our solons.

It will cost $30 extra for the Mariners plate - and $30 with each annual renewal. Two bucks goes for administrative and production costs. The ballpark gets the rest.

These are special plates - not personalized plates. You can't order words, such as JUNIOR or EDGAR. Just numbers. Some people are expected to renew ahead of schedule to get low numbers.

The Mariners' logo will be on top of the ballpark plate. Below, they'll read: Seattle Mariners.

The best part is this is a voluntary fee paid to the state Department of Licensing. It's a way for M's supporters to help the ballpark. It doesn't shove a fee down the throats of those who rejected a sales-tax increase in King County to finance the ballpark.

Our Legislature first got into the fun-and-good-cause license business in 1972, when it approved vanity (personalized) plates to raise money for wildlife enhancement.

Personalized plates, which cost $45 more initially and $30 more on each renewal, have given a good boost to wildlife - providing more than $2 million a year.

As a state, we're not very vain. Only about 2 percent of licensees buy vanity plates.

The 81,000 personalized plate total has been fairly constant for the past few years, according to Sandra Britton, the department's licensing services manager.

Personalized plates are more than a vanity thing. Many purchasers are motivated by the money going toward improving wildlife habitat.

For some, it's a challenge of sneaking by the censors of the state Department of Licensing. It's a no-no to put offensive words and numbers on vanity plates. There has never been a court challenge of denials or repeals of personalized plates deemed offensive.

Most double-entendre vanity-plate messages aren't dirty. They're just read by people with dirty minds.

Take the vanity plate: SUREIDO. Sure I do what? Calculus? That one is OK.

A few years back, there was a big stir over a woman who had MENOPOZ put on her vanity plate. Some women complained to the department that was offensive. Two women censors didn't think it was. But a male supervisor did. He was going to pull the plate. Then-director Mary Faulk Riveland said whoa, that's a part of life. The plate was spared.

A couple of savvy censors look over each application. Public complaints go to the Personalized Plate Review Committee made up of four department employees.

It's OK if you're plate says TOPLESS. It could be a convertible with the top down. But STUD has been deemed in bad taste. That's a close call. What if it's a plug by a two-by-four salesman?

The department has a computerized no-no list. It runs about 12 pages. It contains mostly sexual references.

Some clever folks have slipped plates past the censors. 2OLFRTS was issued, then canceled after complaints.

Vanity plates serve two purposes. They help wildlife and give my colleague Jean Godden fodder for her column. She is the queen of vanity-plate notes.

Godden once chronicled another classic vanity plate flap. The plate read: FUQUARI. The applicant said it was a reference to an Indian tribe.

After the plate was issued, the driver wrapped it with a custom-made license holder. The top read: Where the." The bottom read: `"e're lost." In came a complaint. The plate was withdrawn. The Fuquari tribe has not been heard from since.

Because the license is a privilege, the censorship isn't viewed as a violation of free-speech guarantees. You can say anything you want on a bumper sticker - and lots of people do. I won't go into those. This is a family newspaper.

Mostly, it's much ado about nothing. Only four vanity plates were canceled last year. The department receives only about one complaint a month. Some people don't have enough to do. "A lot of it is by perception," Britton says.

If you don't want to worry about the censors, buy a Mariners' license. It's a safe trip to the plate.

Don Hannula's column appears Thursday on editorial pages of The Times.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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