The white F-150 Rep. Jamie Grant (R) drove home to Tampa last Thursday night after a long, hard week’s work in Tallahassee has the same ol’ run-of-the-mill, oranges-in-the-middle license plate he’s had since moving back to Florida 10 years ago.
“I would have had an Auburn tag on my truck for a long time if that was an option,” he told me before disappearing into one of I-10’s cellular dead spots.
Grant graduated from Auburn University in 2006. He was an Auburn student equipment manager for the football team. Went undefeated in 2004, never lost to Bama, etc.
The first Auburn game he attended? Nix to Sanders. His older sister was a Florida cheerleader in 1994. She was crushed. He didn’t care. He was cheering for Auburn and wanted everyone to know it.
Right now, the only way people behind him on the road can tell he’s an Auburn fan is from the Auburn stickers. That’s great and all, but Grant wants more. So do thousands of other Auburn fans and graduates living in the Sunshine State. They want to support their school with an Auburn specialty plate. And they may soon get to, thanks to Grant.
… and Bill Newton and David Langner, apparently.
Rep. Clay Ingram (R), Grant’s Florida House of Representatives colleague, laughed at that when I got him on the phone, but do the math. Minus the eventual result of the romance born in those two magical moments in Legion Field, this whole thing might not be happening.
Ingram is a proud Florida State grad. The man won a national championship for the Seminoles in 1999. Long snapper. Started all four years.
“But,” as he told the Florida’s Transportation & Tourism Appropriations Subcommittee last Wednesday, “it was my parents’ first date in December of 1972—the Iron Bowl. They were both students at Auburn University. Auburn beat Alabama on two blocked punts. ‘Punt, Bama, Punt’ is the name. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Auburn. So I have a little affection for the bill as well.”
A little affection, and a lot of influence.
Ingram happens to chair said subcommittee, the second of the three House hurdles for Grant’s House Bill 1375 which, among other things, calls for the establishment of an Auburn specialty license plate in Florida. And since Ingram is a senior member of the Auburn Caucus, the bill was practically guaranteed to make the agenda (no small feat these days when it comes to specialty plate legislation).
No, the Auburn Caucus isn’t officially a thing; that’s just what the they call themselves. But in the fall of 2014, when Rep. Steve Crisafulli (R), father of Aubie the Golden Retriever, became Speaker of the House, it almost felt like it.
At the time, there were just three of them, all Republicans: Ingram, Grant, and Crisafulli.
The first Auburn game Crisafulli saw in person was the 1983 win over Florida. He remembers it like it was yesterday. “We won 28-21,” he says. “We were ranked No. 4 and they were ranked No. 5.” Bo had touchdown runs of 55 and 80 yards.
Crisafulli graduated from Central Florida, but when addressing his colleagues he always made sure to really hammer home his love for the Tigers.
Before he took the office, Crisafulli’s staff surprised him with his own gavel (per tradition), but one with custom-made, sentimental value.
Suddenly, the symbol of power in the Florida House of Representatives was also a symbol of Auburn.
“As a guy who also loves football I can appreciate this, but there’s also another bit of significance in here, Mr. Speaker,” outgoing Speaker Will Weatherford, the older brother of former Florida State quarterback Drew Weatherford, told Crisafulli in the House chamber before presenting him with the gavel.
It was made mostly with wood from two trees on his family’s farm. But, Weatherford said, there was also “a small piece of the University of Auburn’s Toomer’s Corner tree tucked inside this handle.”
People clapped and laughed. It isn’t uncommon for the Auburn Caucus’ pigskin partisanship to be referenced in the chamber come football season, come whenever. The token of appreciation the House presented to Crisafulli last year in his final days as speaker was a rifle done in “Auburn burnt orange.” More laughter. The Auburn Caucus strikes again.
But while, organizationally, it still consists mostly of just meeting up for an Auburn home game each fall, the Auburn Caucus has this spring begun flexing real legislative muscle that could affect more than just the number of “War Eagles” heard in Florida’s halls of Congress.
When it comes to something as seemingly simple as creating a new speciality license plate, you’d think you could just drag a logo into the DMV’s public DropBox account or something, fill out an application, slap down 25 bucks, and drive off into your orange and blue sunset. But no. It requires a law. And these days, it’s easier for a baby sea turtle to survive a Florida beach than it is for a bill calling for a new specialty license plate to survive the Florida legislature (though there is a plate supporting sea turtle survival—it’s more popular than FSU’s).
At least 20 speciality plate bills were killed during the 2015 legislative session. Last year, Ingram alone had two bite the dust. The Ducks Unlimited tag with all the money going to help maintain duck habitats and stuff? Nothing doing. A plate supporting Dan Marino’s Autistic Foundation? Try again next year.
Constitutionally speaking, Florida’s specialty plate life cycle is hard to wrap your head around, thanks mostly to the “moratorium.” In 2008, the legislature said that the 100 speciality plates already available were plenty. People were making jokes. So they stopped considering new ones. Until they didn’t.
Somehow—and no one really knows how—23 have since then managed to steer around the roadblock.
In 2014, a rule passed requiring new tags to earn 1,000 pre-orders before entering production (even though new tags are still technically not supposed to enter production or something). Also, old plates that dip below 1,000 orders in any given year are supposed to be kicked to the curb (but kind of don’t actually have to be or something).
“There are currently 123 tags you can buy, but right now there are technically 137 on the road because the tags that fell below the low-performing threshold got tossed out of the program, but can still stay on the cars you own,” Grant says. “Even when there’s a moratorium you can still pass a law that can still make a tag.
“The whole thing is a mess.”
But despite including not just another tag, but a slightly contentious tag—Auburn’s would be the first Florida specialty plate granted an out-of-state school—it’s a mess Grant’s bill aims to fix.
It caps the number of speciality plates at 125, but also allows new plates to enter the system through relegation. If a proposed new plate meets the pre-order requirements, it would simply replace the worst-selling plate already on the books.
(Sorry, Clearwater Christian College, but you gotta do better than seven.)
The three speciality plates not-so-quietly piggybacking on the bill are meant to kill a few extra birds and build a little consensus. So far, the plan seems to be working—mostly. The Transportation & Infrastructure Subcommittee, the first to hear Grant’s bill, approved it unanimously. Last Wednesday, the Transportation & Tourism Appropriations Subcommittee (on which sits three Auburn Caucus members, including Chairman Ingram) signed off on it, too.
Rep. James Fant (R) didn’t have a problem with the Beat Childhood Cancer license plate in HB 1375, or even the one for the Florida State Beekeepers Association.
The Auburn plate, however, got a whole amendment out of him, one Fant and his staff actually hand-wrote as HB 1375 went before the committee—and that would have struck any language about an Auburn plate from the bill.
“Guys, I just don’t think Florida should be putting Auburn on our plates,” Fant argued (after complimenting the Auburn Caucus for being “smooth”). “We don’t do it for any other schools. If we do it for Auburn, we’re going to have to do it for every other school that comes here to do it. I’m sure Auburn is a fine, fine university, but it’s a slippery slope, and that’s the reason I brought that amendment in—to save us from looking like we’re applying favoritism to the situation and to create (a precedent for) every SEC school and everybody else who wants to decorate our plates. I just think that’s a bad policy thing, so that’s why the amendment is in there. It’s nothing personal.”
Auburn graduate Jay Trumbull, a newer member of the Auburn Caucus who sits on the committee, and who also signed on as a co-sponsor for HB 1375, believes him, though he claims Fant “is a monster Florida fan.”
Regardless of Fant’s reasons, Grant and Trumbull were prepared for his objections thanks to friends in high places (who deliberately wore orange and blue that day).
“Clay (Ingram) let us know (that Fant would submit the amendment) a little before the meeting, so Jamie pulled me off of the committee room and told me off to the side,” Trumbull says. “We started doing research about other states and where those dollars are going in order to hopefully have some firepower if we needed it. So Jamie was chock full of information.”
When, to counter Fant, Trumbull lobbed Grant a question (with Ingram’s blessing) on similar specialty plate practices in other states, Grant took it to the house.
“That’s a great question,” he said, smiling.
His answer dealt not only with the fact that revenue from the tags would support an endowment for Florida students meeting the requirements for the state’s Bright Futures Scholarship who planned to attend Auburn University, but also the obvious double standard.
University of Florida specialty plates are available in Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, and Texas. Florida State University tags are available in Alabama, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.
“If Rep. Fant would like to file an amendment that says the University of Florida will no longer authorize our state universities to have tags in other states, I think we can have an equitable conversation about the tag issue,” Grant said.
Ingram looked at Trumbull. “Any other questions?”
Trumbull smiled. “I thought that was a wonderful answer by the bill sponsor.”
“It was rather eloquent,” Ingram replied.
The Auburn Caucus strikes again.
Grant’s answer was eloquent enough to convince Rep. Evan Jenne, a classmate of Ingram’s at Florida State, to vote for the bill due “to the sheer fact that this plate will give an opportunity to school kids to attend the university of their choice.
“Even though I think they’d make a much better decision if they went to Florida State, but that’s up to them,” Jenne joked. “We live in a free society. But if they would want to make that mistake and go to Auburn University, like so many good members of this legislature have, that’s their prerogative.
“I think this language should stay in this bill.”
Grant, Ingram, and Trumbull aren’t the only Auburn agents in the fight for an Auburn plate in Florida.
Rep. Jayer Williamson (R), the newest Auburn Caucus member, was elected to the House last year and sits on the Transportation & Tourism Appropriations Subcommittee as well as the Government Accountability Committee, the bill’s final, upcoming House stop on the long road to legality. Williamson is a lifelong Auburn fan and attended AU for a year. His mother was the house mother for Auburn’s Beta Theta Pi chapter when Grant lived there. She still is.
Advocating for the Auburn plate in the Senate is Sen. Keith Perry of Gainesville, a noted Florida fan… but a husband to a former Auburn gymnast, Amy Cekander Perry.
Also, not that he’s not on any of the committees that will sign off on Grant’s bill, but Rep. Thad Altman has a daughter currently enrolled at Auburn. Can’t hurt come vote time.
HC 1375 could still fail. But at this point, with two House committees and one Senate committee out of the way, the Auburn Caucus is growing more confident that come summer, Auburn plates will finally be available for pre-order ($25) in the state of Florida.
“Some people disagree with an out-of-state university getting a speciality plate,” Grant says, “but I welcome anybody to compare the impact Auburn grads have had on the state of Florida with that of graduates from other universities.”
If there are any more Fants out there genuinely concerned that hordes of Florida and Florida State rivals will descend on the Florida legislature to demand their own specialty plates—or if Fant himself objects again; he’s also on the Government Accountability Committee—Grant is more than willing to tweak things.
Want to make it harder for out-of-state schools to get on the back of Sunshine State Sonatas and Sorentos? Grant’s fine with an amendment making the minimum pre-sale threshold, oh, say, four times that required for other specialty plates.
Because for Auburn’s plate, that shouldn’t be a problem.
Grant’s bill began in 2016 with a full court press online. He connected with Florida-based media and political consultant Kevin Cate, a 2005 Auburn grad who despite working mostly for Democrats was more than willing to partner with Auburn Caucus Republicans to help the ol’ alma mater.
The website Cate created to build support for the bill (www.iwantmyfloridaauburnplate.com) quickly logged thousands of hits and secured more than 4,000 of what essentially amounts to pledges (all from Florida IP addresses) to preorder the tag if it enters production.
Cate keeps those registered with the site up to speed on the bill’s progress via email. Last Wednesday, he sent the results of the Transportation & Tourism Appropriations Subcommittee meeting. Of course, that included news of Fant’s objection.
Auburn alumni living in Florida quickly flooded Fant’s inbox with complaints—hundreds of them.
Trumbull tried to warn him.
“I told him, right before the meeting, don’t mess with Auburn,” Trumbull said. “He said, ‘I thought that was don’t mess with Texas.’ I told him you haven’t met a mad Auburn fan.”
Nearly 20 million people live in Florida. Approximately 20,000 of them are Auburn grads, a significant portion of which live in the panhandle, Trumbull’s neck of the woods.
“I love Auburn, it’s one of the greatest things that ever happened to me,” Trumbull says. “To have a hand in allowing an Auburn plate for fans in the state of Florida—there’s a lot of pride associated with that.”
The Auburn Caucus is still working out whose car—Grant says it’ll be his F-150—will get the first Auburn tag if the bill makes it all the way.
Settling on a design hasn’t been easy, either.
“We couldn’t decide whether to go with Wes Byrum’s face or Frank Sanders’,” Grant said.
“Both are Floridians who made such a meaningful impact on the state of Florida.”