Digest>Archives> May 1997

Maine lighthouse license plate wins in House but is stopped in Senate

By Timothy Harrison


The big day had arrived. The months of hard work, the months of research, months of lobbying, months of sending letters, making phone calls, and travelling to Augusta (Maine's capitol) on numerous occasions had finally arrived. It was the day of the vote in Maine's House of Representatives for a new license plate design as the standard issue plate for the state of Maine.

The lighthouse was the idea of students from a small junior high school in southern Maine. They took what was originally only conversation, researched the facts, designed a plate, got it introduced as a bill, attended and testified at the hearings, and followed every step of the legislative process, the way you are supposed to. Nearly every newspaper in the state and most of the television stations had issued statements of support. Even Channel 2 TV in Bangor and Channel 6 TV in Portland, just days before, had reversed their previous stand and issued a flurry of editorials supporting the lighthouse license plate and the Noble cause (referring to Noble Junior High School where the students were from).

The students took yet another day off from school to travel to Augusta to do some last minute lobbying. Lighthouse Digest was there to help them. Some of the students were even sworn in as Honorary Pages, which allowed them on the floor of the House. Some of them even got to deliver telephone messages asking the Representatives to vote for the lighthouse.

The vote would be between a chickadee design as proposed by Senator William O'Gara (who was on the sidelines) and the lighthouse. There was also a bill for a plate with no design.

Then the lively and sometime humorous debate started. "We must vote between a lighthouse and a chickadee," said Rep. Joseph Driscoll, D-Calais, "This has a potential to affect people as far away as a Mainer can drive."

Rep. Paul Chartrand, D-Rockland, said "The chickadee represents all of Maine and not just the coast." This was a surprise since the representative comes from an area that has some of Maine's most famous lighthouses.

One representative, Julie O'Brien, R-Augusta, said, "I will vote for the lighthouse because those children have done a wonderful job of lobbying me." While Rep. Robert Winglass, R-Auburn said, "I'm not aware of any chickadee in history that led the way for mariners on the sometimes cruel sea. No, that was reserved for the majestic lighthouse. We can have a cheery little bird or a magnificent device of mankind."

Rep. Christopher Muse, D-South Portland said that "people always want to take pictures of lighthouses, but I can't recall ever seeing anyone taking a picture of a chickadee."

Opponents to the chickadee argued that the chickadee is also the state bird of Massachusetts, and Maine should not have the Massachusetts state bird on its license plate. One representative said the state should go with the plain plate, since license plates were not meant to be an advertisement of the state, they were meant to be a purpose of registration. Yet another representative said his mother likes lighthouses and this Sunday was Mothers Day and there was no way he would vote against his mother.

Then the vote came. The first up was the Chicakdee Design. It was rejected 76-65. Then came the plain plate design and it to was rejected with a surprisingly close vote of 72-62.

House Speaker Elizabeth Mitchell (who favored the chickadee) then asked if any members of the House were opposed to the lighthouse plate design to please stand up, and no one did, so the lighthouse passed by acclamation.

Needless to say the students and other lighthouse supporters were elated. It was one of the big stories on the TV News that night and featured big headlines in the next day's newspapers.

But Senator O'Gara wasted no time making sure the license plate issue came up in the Senate to make sure the students had as little time as possible to lobby the Senators.

The following Monday the Senate convened at 9am and the students who left home at 7am to arrive by the opening bell were there again.

The word in the hallways was it was a done deal. There were enough Senators on the side of the students for the lighthouse to win. But the day dragged on and on and on, while the students waited in the gallery. Senator Mark Lawrence, President of the Senate, was required to step down as President for the vote since he was a cosponsor of the students' lighthouse bill.

Then the Senate went into caucus. When they came out of caucus, the attitude of some Senators appeared to be different. Some who said they would vote for the students' lighthouse design, did not even get up and speak and would not even look the kids in the eye. While the standard arguments for the lighthouse took place, most of the real facts in favor of the lighthouse were never argued. The arguments for the chickadee was that it represented all the state and stood for the way Maine people are lively, cheerful, and family oriented. (What they failed to mention was that according to the Audubon Society, the chickadee spends most of its time hanging upside down.) One Senator commented that the lighthouse plate was so good looking that it would take sales away from Maine's specialty Loon plate, which is a conservation fund raiser. Another senator said the lighthouse would only represent coastal areas. Senator O'Gara, the main supporter for the chickadee, said that the plate issue was really not that big of deal and the Senate should stop wasting time, vote for the chickadee and get on with more important business.

Some of the Senators had never even bothered to read the fact sheet on the lighthouse plate and reasons why they should vote for it. This was evident when some of the Senators opened up the package, glanced at it, (without reading it) and laid it on their desk. We watched it happen. Finally, at nearly 5pm in the afternoon, the vote was taken. It was apparent that it was deliberately orchestrated to make the kids wait. They still had a two hour ride back to school. Apparently Senator O'Gara had called in his markers. It was 23 to 10 in favor of the chickadee. Since the chickadee plate won that vote, no vote on the lighthouse was allowed. Two Senators gave each other the thumbs up after the vote, and one senator crumpled up the lighthouse design in front of the students.

Since the Senate and House were now in a deadlock, the bill went back to the House. The Speaker of the House, an original chickadee supporter, declined to form a compromise committee, which in essence would mean that the chickadee would be approved. So much for the legislative process.

It was then that Rep. Thomas Wright's daughter called him and told him that while she was doing some research on the chickadee, she found out that the chickadee on Senator O'Gara's plate design was in fact a Carolina Chickadee, a bird that has never been seen in Maine. Senator O'Gara's so called task force had designed the plate with the wrong chickadee!

The students have vowed to not give up the fight. They now have two plans of action. The first is to ask the Governor to veto the chickadee and force the members of the Maine House and Senate to reach a compromise. A letter writing and phone call campaign is underway. A suggested compromise would be to have two regular issue plates, one with a Maine chickadee and one with the students' lighthouse design. The people could then pick which design they wanted when they purchase their plates. The second alternative would be to have a specialty lighthouse plate with the funds going to the State Parks. What will happen now is anybody's guess.

This story appeared in the May 1997 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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