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Florida lawmakers get one perk for the road

When Mike Fasano leaves the state Senate this year, he'll forfeit one of his perks of power: his specialty license plate.

The termed-out New Port Richey Republican will remove the tag from his white Lincoln and hang it on a nail in his garage next to the one he displayed as a former House member. His current plate shows a map of Florida next to his title and district number: state senator 11.

Fasano is one of the state's 86 lawmakers (a little more than half) who choose to traverse Florida's highways with a badge of legislative leadership. Those numbers may soon swell thanks to legislation adopted in 2012 that would create vanity plates for retired lawmakers.

The tags are a visible perk of membership in the elite club known as the Florida Legislature. Stamped by prison inmates, they are the equivalent of a letter sweater. The ultimate vanity plate.

"I've had people see the license plate, and they've pulled up and waived at me or rolled down their window to ask me a question. That's happened many times," Fasano said. "One car pulled up to the side and gave us a thumbs up."

The Legislature created the prestige plates in 1983; Malcolm Beard, a Republican lawmaker from Seffner, sponsored the bill in the House. Beard, now 93, vaguely remembers the measure but knows he had a plate, he said this week.

Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, remembers the idea. He voted against the original bill while serving in the House and says he always disliked the tags.

"I do remember it passing, and I've very much been against these license plates," he said. "It's confusing to law enforcement."

The law also created distinct plates for Tallahassee's most powerful residents.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos and House Speaker Dean Cannon's tags list their leadership role. Gov. Rick Scott decided against his special tag, which would say "Florida 1."

The cost is $45-$70, plus a $12 annual fee for the logo, the same as any personalized tag.

Most lawmakers say they weigh other pros and cons.

Will my car be vandalized?

Will I look like an ego-maniac?

And, could it save me from a speeding ticket?

That's part of the rationale for St. Augustine Sen. John Thrasher, a Florida State University alumnus with one ticket on his state driving record. His Seminole plate, which says state senator 8, has helped him avoid a citation or two, he admits.

"But it doesn't always work, I promise you that," he said with a laugh. "I've gotten a couple of tickets with the license tags, believe it or not. I tend to probably drive too fast."

Rep. Jeff Clemens briefly regretted his decision to not buy the tag when an officer pulled him over on Interstate 10 en route to Tallahassee last April. He was going 79 in a 70.

"It did cross my mind, would it have been different if I had the plate?" the Lake Worth Democrat said. "It also crossed my mind for a second that I'd spent the entire last legislative session defending the pensions of state workers. But I just kept my mouth shut."

Speeding tickets aside, the rhythm guitarist said he prefers the "state of the arts" plate on his 2004 Honda Element, the boxy SUV he uses to shuttle band equipment.

The tag enables him to support the arts, he said. But it also shields him from the eye of enraged constituents, a sentiment echoed by several lawmakers.

"I don't want to be targeted on the highway for all the bad things we do in Tallahassee," he said.

Incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, also refused the plate.

The retired multimillionaire said it just wouldn't look right on his 2002 Jeep Cherokee with 238,000 miles and a jerry-rigged air conditioning system.

Flashing a state senator tag in his 12,000-person town would just be, well, awkward, he said.

"I can just imagine that at the Waffle House in Niceville I'd get teased a little bit if I drove up to get coffee with my buddies and I had special license plates," Gaetz said. "Being a senator is nothing special in Niceville."

Four termed-out legislators are still using their specialty plates, which is a second-degree misdemeanor, according to state statute. The Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles said federal law prohibits the state from releasing their names.

New legislation passed in 2012 will allow retired lawmakers to buy new $500 specialty vanity plates — $450 will help preserve the Old Capitol building in Tallahassee and $50 will go to the state, said Rep. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Wellington, who proposed the idea.

Retiring Senate President Pro-Tempore Mike Bennett enjoys his plate's benefits while they last. But he won't buy the tag for retired senators, he said.

"I think when you're done with it, you're over it," Bennett, R-Bradenton, said. "As soon as they come out with one that says fat, balding old men, that's the one I'll get."

Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at bdavis@tampabay.com.