Two Republican state senators in Oklahoma want to make room on the roadways for President Donald Trump’s brand – in a move that might be in violation of federal campaign finance rules.
State Sens. Nathan Dahm and Marty Quinn proposed new specialty license plates last week that would read “Make America Great Again” and “Keep America Great,” the two rallying slogans that Trump has used in his 2016 and 2020 bids for the White House, respectively.
The Trump-themed license plates, if approved by the state legislature, would be added to a list of 98 other specialty designs that Oklahoma drivers can choose to purchase for $35. Of that upfront amount, $20 goes to the designated organization that matches the theme of the vanity plate, which includes mostly nonpolitical groups and issues: state universities and education, child abuse prevention, environmental conservation, law enforcement or military support, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, cancer research. There is also a “Choose Life” license plate that funds a state program aiding women’s groups that oppose abortion.
The MAGA and “Keep America Great” plates would not directly fund the president’s reelection bid, the two senators said. Instead, the fees associated with the purchase would be split between two veterans groups, the Warriors for Freedom Foundation and the Folds of Honor Foundation. The Oklahoma Tax Commission, which handles specialty plates, would “enter into a licensing agreement with the corporation or entity designated by Donald J. Trump,” according to the bill.
“This is a way that people can support America and support those ideas of keeping America great,” Dahm told Oklahoma’s News 4. “There’s people that are upset with the president just in general, so I understand that people have those feelings, potentially negative feelings towards the president, but the great thing is, here in America, you have freedom of speech.”
The updated language of the bill, if approved, would have to be signed into law by the governor.
Although the money collected from purchases of the Trump plate would go to veteran groups and not Trump’s reelection campaign, the proposal could still violate campaign finance laws if the state uses taxpayer dollars or resources to make the plates.
“These are political slogans,” said Richard Briffault, a professor at Columbia Law School. “This has the look and feel of using state resources to support a political candidate, which seems improper . . . and possibly illegal.”
The offices of Dahm and Quinn did not respond to a request for comment, nor did the press office for Trump’s reelection committee. It is unclear if the senators consulted with the campaign before making their proposal.
A spokesperson with the Federal Election Commission said the senators had not submitted an Advisory Opinion Request with the office, which determines whether proposed activities are in compliance with federal campaign finance law and FEC regulations.
A previous advisory opinion, from 1982, ruled on a similar case involving the way state political parties may spend money allotted to them from personalized license plate fees. In the decision, which involved the state of Indiana, the FEC ruled that individual political parties may use those fees however they choose – including to fund a federal election campaign. But the decision is narrow, and does not address the same issues as the Oklahoma proposal.
Paula Ross, a spokesperson for the Oklahoma Tax Commission, said the agency has rules against personalized VIN numbers on license plates that are discriminatory, threatening or overtly political. But those rules do not apply to decisions made by the state legislature regarding lawmaker-approved specialty plates. If the bill passed, Ross said, the Tax Commission would work with the Trump campaign to mock up a design, and 100 people would have to pre-purchase a plate before they would be manufactured.
The proposal for Trump-themed plates comes on the heels of a related bill – to rename a section of Route 66 the President Donald Trump Highway – that the two senators submitted for consideration in November.
Both bills will be considered when the Oklahoma legislative session begins in February.