Ernie Chambers - mountain lion licence plate

State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha with an artistic rendering of what became Nebraska’s specialty mountain lion license plate. He sponsored legislation creating the plates, with proceeds supporting wildlife conservation.

LINCOLN — When it comes to mountain lion license plates, Nebraskans are roaring their approval.

And it’s left the State Legislature’s biggest cougar fan purring with delight and stalking another step to protect the big cats.

As of Friday, 21,351 of the colorful specialty plates featuring the state’s biggest cat have been sold — more than any other specialty plate sold by the state over the past year.

In fact, at this rate, the cougar plates may soon do the unthinkable and pass up Nebraska football plates as the most popular specialty plate on state roadways.

“They’ve way out-sold everything else,” said Betty Johnson, the administrator for driver and vehicle records for the Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles.

So much so that revenue from the sales of the mountain lion conservation plates is more than 10 times higher than projections.

As someone who’s written more stories about taxes and fees than I can remember, I can’t recall one in which collections exceeded projections that much. It’s Plate-zilla. License-plate largess.

The surprising windfall has brought smiles to folks over at the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, which gets most of the funds. The $205,355 the wildlife agency has received so far will be used for wildlife conservation education programs. Some will be done at the commission’s nature center in the Wildcat Hills of Nebraska’s Panhandle, prime habitat for mountain lions.

“It’s an attractive-looking plate,” said Jim Douglas, the director of Game and Parks.

The design on the license plate came from combining two photographs shot by staffers at the award-winning Nebraskaland magazine. One photo depicted a lounging lion; the other, the pine-studded Wildcat Hills.

The plate is cool, though I also like the “Beef State” plate now offered by the state, which has produced just over 3,000 sales.

Personally, I don’t mind the state’s regular blue-and-gold plate, but people tell me it’s boring. Nebraskans’ DNA, for some strange reason, includes strong opinions about license plates — almost as strong as their opinions about the starting quarterback at NU.

The beauty of the mountain lion plate is one reason it’s a big seller, according to Johnson.

It’s also a bargain compared with most other specialty plates, which cost $70 each. Slapping a mountain lion on your bumper costs only $5 extra for a plate with numbers, and $40 for a plate with an individualized message.

State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, who’s gone to the legislative mat to protect mountain lions, said he sees another reason for the popularity of the plates: People don’t want hunting seasons on the big cats.

“When people put their dollars behind what they believe, that shows what the attitude of this state really is,” Chambers said.

The senator representing north Omaha has never been a fan of Game and Parks, and last week he said that the popularity of the mountain lion plates shows that the agency is out of step with the citizenry.

So, as is his style, Chambers is drafting a bill to do something about it. His proposal would require the nine commissioners who oversee the Game and Parks Commission to be elected by voters rather than appointed by the governor.

Chambers has been a champion of election-by-district over his 42 years in the State Legislature and sponsored bills to make those changes. Before Chambers took office, the school board and City Council in Omaha and the Douglas County Board were all elected on an at-large basis, a situation that made the elections of blacks and other racial minorities difficult if not impossible.

But now the state’s longest-serving state senator thinks a majority of Nebraskans, instead of a minority, are being underrepresented — the majority he believes that oppose hunting mountain lions.

“Mountain lions are part of the natural resources of this state. They don’t belong to hunters, they belong to all the people,” Chambers said.

A couple of other notes on license plates:

» Right now there are 21,191 specialty “Husker” plates on the road in Nebraska, compared with 18,031 mountain lion plates. But there are 3,300 or so cougar plates about to hit the streets, which could make them the No. 1 specialty plate on the road.

» “Military Honor” plates, which were first issued in December 2015, now number 16,272. Johnson said that as of Jan. 1, military honor plates can be purchased by not just current or former members of a branch of the military but by those who served in the military reserves.

» Mountain lions might be seeing some competition soon. “Choose Life” license plates will become available Jan. 1, and some project its “right to life” message will make it the state’s top-selling specialty plate.

» Some state specialty plates are mere also-rans to mountain lion mania. As of June, 1, 770 Creighton University Bluejay plates and 1,406 Union Pacific Railroad plates had been sold, respectively. And the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce needs to kick it up a notch. As of June, only 289 of the special “We Don’t Coast” plates had been sold., 402-473-9584

Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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