This story appears in both The Paper and the Santa Fe New Mexican through a partnership to bring our readers the best in reporting from the legislature.
Politicians in New Mexico have obsessed about license plates since at least 1932.
That was the year state Comptroller Jake Lujan announced he would remove the Zia symbol from New Mexico’s license plates and replace it with the words “Sunshine State.”
Newspapers quoted Lujan as saying only a few residents of Santa Fe would carp about the change. He underestimated how much people hated his new license plate. Seldom has a bureaucrat been roasted at the blast-furnace temperatures Lujan felt. “Not one single publication has supported his idea,” the Deming Headlight wrote in an editorial.
Lujan retreated. He reinstated the Zia alongside “Sunshine State,” but his compromise appeased no one. The Headlight complained the Zia had been reduced to “about the size of a badly shriveled walnut.” The Tucumcari News ripped Lujan for the hackneyed slogan “Sunshine State.”
“It is a nickname that is not even exclusive. South Carolina also lays claim to the title,” the News wrote.
A half-dozen other states also referred to themselves as the Sunshine State, most notably Florida. Feeling pressure at home and from as far away as the Atlantic Coast, New Mexico politicians eliminated “Sunshine State” from license plates after one year.
Lujan resigned from office in 1932, purportedly for reasons other than his reviled license plate. Still, the shrunken Zia and “Sunshine State” slogan became his legacy — one that inspired other politicians. They realized license plates generated publicity, and it didn’t have to be bad.
In the last 10 years alone, state legislators have introduced 64 bills for new license plates.
Sen. David Gallegos, R-Eunice, has been one of the more active lawmakers. He has sponsored six bills for license plates since becoming a legislator in 2013. Two of his proposals failed last year when Gallegos was a member of the House of Representatives. He has revived both during his first year in the Senate.
Gallegos proposes a license plate for supporters of Make-A-Wish New Mexico with Senate Bill 404. His Senate Bill 246 is more sweeping. It’s his second attempt to display the U.S. motto “In God We Trust” on all state license plates and public buildings.
Gallegos has steered two other license-plate bills to passage. One was on autism awareness and the other was for New Mexico Junior College in Hobbs.
Then-Gov. Susana Martinez signed those measures. But Martinez, a Republican who served two terms, vetoed most other license-plate bills approved by the Legislature. They included license plates for the Albuquerque Isotopes minor league baseball team, West Las Vegas High School, the Police Athletic League and the Lea County Energyplex.
She also vetoed license plates for golf as a tourist draw, recreational aviation and big-game hunting. Martinez dispatched most bills for additional license plates by ignoring them. This is called a pocket veto.
Without writing a veto message, her message seemed clear: Stop sending me all these bills for more license plates.
But Martinez could throw a curve as well as any politician. After a series of vetoes, she signed a bill creating a license plate for the New Mexico Amigos. They call themselves the state’s goodwill ambassadors.
Her decision rankled then-Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales. Years earlier, Martinez had pocket vetoed Sapien’s bill for the license plate on big-game hunting.
Standing on the Senate floor, Sapien complained Martinez had shelved his bill on grounds that the state had a glut of license plates. Then she approved another.
In a state with more license plates than a good highway patrol officer can decipher, Sapien said he had to take a stand. He voted against a bill for a license plate featuring the Ronald McDonald House. Other senators were more magnanimous. They approved the license plate for the Ronald McDonald House on a vote of 36-3.
It didn’t matter. Martinez took her time, then pocket vetoed poor Ronald McDonald. Martinez, though, was not above stepping up to take credit for a license plate. She did so in 2017, when New Mexico lawmakers heard Colorado was creating a license plate to celebrate its chile crop. Sen. Cathrynn Brown, R-Carlsbad, dashed off an emergency bill to create a special chile license plate for New Mexico.
Martinez had a grander idea. She vetoed Brown’s bill on grounds that a license plate for New Mexico chile should not be a specialty item. Martinez’s administration made the chile license plate available to everyone.
Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham is governor now. Her presence gives fresh hope to legislators writing bills for more specialty license plates.
So far, Lujan Grisham has signed bills for license plates on pollinator protection, to honor recipients of military air medals and for supporting family members dealing with a child’s cancer.
Jake Lujan’s “Sunshine State” started it all. It was a dark chapter that spawned a cottage industry.