Republican candidates with "tea party" backing swept to power here in November's election, moving the state Legislature further to the right.
Now the Legislature is trying to help the conservative grass-roots movement by authorizing the creation of a vanity license plate that would generate proceeds to causes that support "tea party governing principles" of free markets and low taxes.
The bill, which is sitting on Republican Gov. Jan Brewer's desk, was not supported by any of the few remaining Democrats in the Legislature. It led one Democratic congressman from New York to propose a measure, called the License Plate Political Slush Fund Prevention Act, that would withhold some federal transportation funds if Brewer approved the new plates.
But perhaps the strongest criticism of the idea comes from some tea party members themselves, who are aghast at anything that smacks of government sponsorship of their limited-government movement.
"Government fundraising for the tea party, that just rubs me all sorts of wrong ways," said Trent Humphries, head of a tea party group in Tucson.
Personalized license plates emblazoned with a coiled rattlesnake and the words "Don't Tread on Me" — a Revolutionary War image that has been embraced by the tea party movement — are already being issued in Texas and will be available this summer in Virginia. Other states, including Nevada and South Carolina, are considering similar plates.
But only in Arizona would a portion of the $25 annual fee for the plate go to tea party causes. In other states, all proceeds go to the general fund or department of motor vehicles. In Virginia, only registered nonprofits can receive a share of proceeds from plate sales, for example, and John O'Bannon, the state legislator who proposed the plates, said tea partyers didn't ask for the money there.
"It didn't get politicized," he said.
It has in Arizona. The Legislature's proposal requires supporters of the plate to pony up $32,000 in administrative costs before the state begins issuing them. After that, $17 of every $25 in extra fees would go to a committee appointed by the governor and legislative leaders — all Republicans — to disburse. The legislation allows the committee to distribute the money as it sees fit, as long as it is spent on "tea party governing principles."
Freshman state Sen. Don Shooter, head of the Yuma tea party and the measure's author, did not return a call for comment. Sen. Steve Smith, a co-sponsor, said legislators wanted to treat the movement like any other worthy cause.
"We don't feel like it's a political license plate," Smith said. "The tea party is not a political party. It's a political movement."
Although technically nonpartisan and decentralized, the tea party movement often ends up supporting conservative Republicans, and its backing is key in winning GOP primaries here.
The legislation creates 10 new vanity plates, including ones for law enforcement and youth development. Brewer has until May 2 to sign or veto the measure. Her office said it did not comment on pending legislation.
Shortly after the bill passed last week with support from every Republican in the Senate and all but nine in the lower house, Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.) put together his proposed legislation that would penalize Arizona and any other state that gave vanity plate proceeds to groups that endorse political candidates.
"License plates shouldn't be used as political payoffs," Ackerman said. "The Arizona GOP might think differently if the legislation were to create a MoveOn.org license plate."
Not at all, Smith said. "If you have an organization that will support it and you have the people who will buy it? Hey, do it," he said.
Smith said he heard enthusiasm from Arizona tea partyers for the plate and predicted that it would sell well.
But Stephen Ray, founder of the East Valley Tea Party, outside Phoenix, said that when he explained proceeds would go to tea party causes, fellow members' eagerness turned sour.
"Government collecting money to give to a special interest group that is against special interest groups?" Ray said. "That's kind of an oxymoron."
Jon Cawley of the Daily Press in Newport News, Va., contributed to this report.