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.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.

(11) comments

Bobbie Ferrell

Stefanie B., a frequent commenter, recently responded to a critic regarding typos. The format of the New Mexican with comment box very tiny makes it hard to proofread one's work. I just saw typo in my entry. I wish like many other papers, there was an "edit" option - you post your comment and it shows up in a full space and you have a few minutes to edit. Would definitely help the content of our comments sections. While I'm at it, I also dislike the rolling updates of the New Mexican site. Many papers - and I subscribe to a few - send out each edition daily and you can always return to that day. I often don't get to to the website first thing and by evening "news" of the day is already off the front page. I like getting the papers in email daily and I can catch up any time. Anyone else notice this? I have family in Maryland - the Frederick MD has one of the best e-editions I've seen. And you can read the whole paper from page one and just arrow through all the pages daily - read what you like and move on. Jumping around on the New Mexican site is a pretty inefficient format.

Mark Ortiz

Bobbie, they are aware and they don't seem to care. I've lobbied them via phone call, email, and in the comment section for an edit or delete option in the comment sections as well as, for example, say they write a story on Mayor Webber and the Don Diego statue, imho, under that story, before or after the comment section there could easily be links to all the recent previous related stories on said subject. It's 2021. It can't be that hard. It seems they are short staffed, unwilling, unable, don't want to bother, and/or____________fil in the blank.

On the subject of license plates. I'm all for fundraising and awareness but, I imagine it is an utter headache on law enforcement keeping track of the obscene number of "New Mexico" license plates. If you want a special/awareness plate, buy one put it on the front of your car, but not to be used as an official plate. Personally, I like the yellow plate, red lettering that matches our unique world famous flag. Disclaimer: this comment was not proofread but I guarantee you, I am literate.

Bobbie Ferrell

I was from a "car family" in the Midwest - one of my grandfathers, both uncles and my dad worked in various aspects of the business in northern Indiana and Michigan when Detroit was the car capital of the world. We didn't have a lot of entertainment options in a small midwestern town but we loved to sit on the steps and count cars and spotting out of state license plates, which were always distinctive and easy to spot. I ended up in Dallas for much of my adult life, and having first visited Santa Fe in college, I always loved it. I was always perked up by seeing one of those distinctive yellow plates with the read letters and Zia symbol on them roaming around Texas. I find the plethora of different plates confusing and antithetical to state pride. If we want to support causes and nonprofit - and I'm all for it - I suggest license plate frames replace all those different and unidentifiable plates. (I'm not crazy about the Balloon plates, which as others have pointed out seem to fade badly - and what if you're not from Albuquerque?) They could still raise money and awareness but we could have our distinctive yellow plates. I bought my car in 2014 and I have the traditional yellow plate with figures and it's as bright and sharp as the day I received it. Viva Nueva Mexico. PS: the chile plates are terrible, hard to read, and that's not just me - I've heard law enforcement doesn't like them either. The "Chile Capital of the World" could be one of the frame plates as well.

Al Chavez

Please ....just require legible plates. Fine anyone who won't get one. Add front plates. I'm surpised law enforcement doesn't favor this. How can they track stolen vehicles if plates aren't legible.

Plus--plates are rolling ads for the state. They should be treated as such. Keep them looking nice.

Thomas Franks

A side problem is that people move to Santa Fe, live here for years (I've seen this in my condo development) and NEVER get New Mexico plates at all. This practice means the loss of a significant source of revenue. When asking someone at the State about this, they said we have the law that you have to get NM plates, but it's simply unenforceable. Other states seem to enforce it fine. In Michigan when I was a student there, if you were a citizen of Michigan, they would pull you over and ask why you were still driving with, for example, New York plates? I know there are more important issues, but we seem to be passing up some good tax dollars. BTW just on a funny note, matching the article, the big problem near the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan Univ. was smarty pants students ordering vanity plates with words that were obscene in other languages than English!

Dottie Butler

I think New Mexico should offer a European-style license plate as an option. You could put larger and longer numbers and letters on it and it would stand out in a good way.

Khal Spencer

One set of our plates faded into invisibility after a few years. I guess that is good if Santa Fe ever introduces photo enforcement. But this constant stream of stupid bills is typical of our legislature, which weighs its effectiveness by the pound of paper rather than by effective governance.

How about a bill for a plate saying "New Mexico: Last in Everything Good, First in Everything Bad"

Mike Johnson

I have and love my many NMSU plates, especially the older design with "Pistol Pete" on it, so politically incorrect! But there have been several attempts to force us to have 2 plates, one for the front and one for the back. Luckily, our car collector and sports car lobbying organizations have beat them back every time. We have national support too, they should not try that garbage again.

Khal Spencer

No front plate, please. Back when I had the 951, a front plate would have blocked the intercooler intake. I suppose Ferry Porsche never intended a front plate on it. Never!!!

Dan Frazier

Forget the specialty license plates already! The focus should be on quality license plates. New Mexico has some of the worst looking license plates I have ever seen. A shocking number of them are badly faded, some to the point of being illegible. The drivers of such vehicles should be ticketed. But the real fault lies with the legislators who have approved color and paint schemes without adequate testing for durability. And then there are the vehicles that have tinted plastic obscuring their plates. Other vehicles may have temporary tags that are posted behind dark tinted windows. Some vehicles, especially lately, have no license plates at all, perhaps because access to the MVD has been limited during the pandemic. We need clear, legible, durable standardized license plates recognizable as New Mexico plates, not a hodge-podge of barely legible plates.

Stefanie Beninato

I had a yellow and orange NM plate with the zia that was beat up but visible after nearly 20 years of service. I have seen the ones with the really ugly white background w/ balloons fade very quickly. I now have a centennial plate that I think is well-designed, distinctive and should last for years. Yes, police should stop those vehicles whose plates are covered, no longer visible or just plain without one--if you have bought a new or used vehicle from a dealer, they do provide paper temp stickers. I am not sure if in a private sale, one could get it online.

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