Va. Gov. Youngkin proposes a second vote to remove Robert E. Lee license plate

This article was reprinted with permission from Virginia Mercury

While Gov. Glenn Youngkin did not veto a measure to repeal two license plates connected to the controversial history of the Confederacy, he is staving off Democrats’ effort to do so by requiring lawmakers to vote again on the measure next year.

The governor also amended the bill, which received bipartisan support from the General Assembly last month and would repeal the special Sons of Confederate Veterans and Gen. Robert E. Lee license plates, by directing the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles to study when special license plates should expire.

This is the second study the governor has called for related to the Confederacy, after lawmakers passed legislation to eliminate tax exemptions for the national and Virginia division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the Confederate Memorial Literary Society and the Stonewall Jackson Memorial.

Bill carrier Del. Candi Mundon King, D-Prince William, views the governor’s amendments to her bill as “cowardly” and “a waste of taxpayer dollars.”

She said the governor is “not brave enough” to stand against Confederacy supporters who want to “continue this harmful narrative that General Lee and the Sons of the Confederacy are something to be celebrated.”

Christian Martinez, a spokesman for the governor, said Virginia has 275 specialty plates including several new additional plates for passenger vehicles that lawmakers added this session.

“The governor’s amendment is aimed at understanding the financial impact of removing specialty plates on state revenue,” Martinez wrote. “In addition, he hopes the Department of Motor Vehicles can work towards a consistent policy to present the General Assembly on how to sunset license plates with low circulation and revisit the bill next year in a more holistic way.”

Over the last four years, Virginia leaders and localities have taken steps to address the commonwealth’s history related to white supremacy and institutional racism by implementing policy changes and reviewing how these topics are addressed in the public education system. Several localities have taken action, sometimes controversial, by renaming roads that bore monikers of people connected to slavery and removing signs and symbols such as Confederate statues.

Opponents and some Republicans, including Sen. John McGuire from Goochland and Del. Tim Griffin of Bedford, said during this year’s session that removing the license plates would violate constitutional free speech protections and create further divisiveness.

“If we pass this bill, a citizen will sue Virginia, and they will use this debate to show the intent of this bill is to kill speech because some in this body did not like the message,” McGuire said during a Feb. 27 Senate floor hearing.

This month, the Sons of the Confederate Veterans observe April as Confederate History and Heritage Month, highlighting prominent figures such as Lee, who was known for his military service and as an enslaver.

“It’s time to expand our view of General Lee in Virginia, his native state that he loved and for, which he sacrificed so much,” said Henrico resident Charles Hague during an earlier House Transportation subcommittee hearing.

However, Mundon King said during the same hearing, “When that license plate says ‘the Virginia Gentleman,’ there is nothing gentle about the way he treated the people who were enslaved.”

Groups, including the NAACP and Southern Poverty Law Center, have been critical of the narrative of the Confederacy which they say the special license plates represent.

Rev. Cozy Bailey, president of the State Conference NAACP, spoke in support of the legislation in February, stating the bill is another area where the commonwealth can “atone for its dark past and move all Virginians forward with inclusion and acknowledgment that any reference to the Confederacy in public spaces and on state-issued materials like license plates are inappropriate and harmful to an entire race of people that suffered under slavery in the Confederate states.”

According to the Virginia Public Access Project, the commonwealth was home to over 100 public memorials dedicated to the Confederacy as of 2021.

In 2020, Virginia permitted local governments to remove, relocate or contextualize the monuments in their communities.

As passed, the legislation would prohibit the DMV from issuing personalized license plates referencing the Sons of Confederate Veterans and Gen. Robert E. Lee. Plates already in circulation would remain valid until their expiration but wouldn’t be renewed.

According to the DMV, as of Feb. 27, 1,783 Robert E. Lee plates and 543 Sons of Confederate Veterans plates are currently in circulation.

The study that Youngkin called for in his amendment would direct the DMV to analyze the effects on state revenue should the plates be discontinued.

The amendment also directs the agency to develop recommendations for when special license plates should expire if few people use them or if they are outlawed, and suggests that any new special license plates also have an expiration date.

The DMV would submit its study to the chairs of the House and Senate Transportation Committees no later than Nov. 1, under Youngkin’s amendment.

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