Wisconsin license plate

State Rep. Scott Allen, R-Waukesha, has proposed a contest among high-schoolers to redesign the state's license plate, with or without its "America's Dairyland" slogan.

CRAIG SCHREINER/State Journal

The head of the state’s business lobby doesn’t think “America’s Dairyland” is the best way to market Wisconsin on its license plates. State dairy groups think otherwise.

Now, a state lawmaker has proposed giving a $1,000 scholarship to the student who comes up with a new plate design, and possibly a new slogan.

Whatever the merits of Wisconsin’s current plate, a $1,000 scholarship is nowhere near just compensation for designing a new one if the new one is expected to help meaningfully boost economic development.

Republican Rep. Scott Allen isn’t sure what kind of an economic impact license plates have but said they contribute to an image of the state that includes such standbys as the Green Bay Packers and cheese. In addition to “America’s Dairyland,” Wisconsin’s plate also features a farm, a sailboat against a setting sun, and a couple of birds.

Under Allen’s bill, interested high school students would redesign the plate and the state’s art teachers association would choose 10 finalists. The governor would then pick the winner.

It’s not a bad idea. Wisconsin residents skew older, the state has long had difficulty retaining its top young scholars, and there’s a worker shortage. A youthful take on what Allen described as “little billboards that drive all around the country” might help in the effort to attract smart, skilled Millennials and their money.

Allen told me he was “open to talking about” a bigger payday for the winning designer, and I thought if the state’s major industry sectors really have anything to gain (or lose) from what’s on the state’s plate, they might want to contribute to that payday.

Of course, as Allen pointed out, in return for their investment, they also might want some say over what that design looks like.

Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce CEO Kurt Bauer didn’t respond, and Dairy Business Association government affairs director John Holevoet declined to comment when I asked them whether they’d be willing to help pay more for a new plate design and, if so, whether they’d demand any creative control over the final product.

But Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association executive director John Umhoefer, while emphasizing dairy’s continued importance to the state’s economy, said if the state decided to “spruce up” the plate but keep “America’s Dairyland,” “then perhaps dairy industry parties would be willing to fund such a contest.”

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, North Dakota, Utah, California and Washington had the most gross domestic product growth from 2011 to the first quarter of this year.

North Dakota boasts a bison and the phrase “Peace Garden State” on its plate. Among Utah’s plate slogans are “In God We Trust” and “Greatest Snow on Earth.” California’s plates generally don’t have a slogan.

Maybe license plates that give nods to skiing and God have boosted Utah’s economy. Maybe California knows that with sun, wine and Hollywood, license plates are an afterthought.

Maybe there’s a Wisconsin plate design that could draw millions in investment, and maybe not.

But rare is the business person who doesn’t know that you’ve got to spend money to make money.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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Chris Rickert is the metro columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal, where he's got his laser-like perspective trained (mostly) on all things Madison.