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The answer on who can change N.C.’s Confederate plate

North Carolina’s Sons of Confederate Veterans license plate
North Carolina’s Sons of Confederate Veterans license plate NCDMV

If Gov. Pat McCrory decided tomorrow to issue a special license plate honoring, say, the contribution of N.C. newspaper editorial boards, the General Assembly would howl.

It wouldn’t necessarily be because lawmakers have anything against editorial boards. OK, it would be exactly that. But legislators would say something different. They would tell the governor to stick with things he’s authorized to do, such as cutting ribbons and pretending his vetoes are meaningful. They would tell him it’s their job to make the call on license plates.

But now that there’s a swell of objection over the Confederate flag emblem that appears on North Carolina’s Sons of Confederate Veterans specialty plate, lawmakers say McCrory is the one who can do something about it.

Progressives, along with others who want the flag off the plates, agree. After all, the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles issues those plates. That’s an agency in McCrory’s administration. Why can’t he just tell the DMV to stop?

McCrory says he can’t.

Who’s right?

Some quick background: People or organizations wanting a special North Carolina license plate must apply for one through the DMV. The DMV, after making sure the application meets state requirements, forwards it to the legislature for an up-or-down vote.

If you’re keeping score, the statute requiring all that is G.S. 20-79.

Senate leader Phil Berger argues, however, that the Sons of Confederate Veterans took a different route. Because the SCV is a “civic group” under state law, it wasn’t required to get legislative approval for the plate. And because that approval wasn’t required, any changes to the plate don’t require the legislature’s nod, either. Back to you, Governor.

Berger is right about the first part, but wrong about the second. Yes, state law allows civic groups to bypass lawmakers and display their emblem – in this case, a Confederate symbol – on their license plates. But that also means the only way to get that emblem off is for the legislature to change the law.

One way to do so, which the governor’s office has suggested, is for lawmakers to craft a new law that doesn’t allow the display of a group’s emblem without legislative approval.

That’s a politically uncomfortable thing to do, at least in the minds of Republicans, which is why McCrory and Berger are hot-potatoing the issue in the first place. The will may be weak, but the excuses – at least for lawmakers – are weaker. The legislature can, and should, fix this.

Peter St. Onge

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