New legislation proposed by state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, could drastically affect oversight of how money collected through sales of Florida’s “Choose Life” license plate is distributed — gutting rules that ensure that a majority of the revenue be used to assist the physical needs of pregnant women.

Currently, proceeds from the state’s bright yellow “Choose Life” plates are funnelled through the Department of Transportation into specific counties that are then put in charge of distributing the funds to various pro-life organizations.

Under current state laws, 70 percent of those funds must be distributed to organizations that help the physical needs of pregnant women: diapers, food and other items for women who plan on putting their babies up for adoption, for example. The other 30 percent of the funds can go toward counseling, training or advertising.

The Fasano-sponsored legislation — Senate Bill 196 (.pdf) — would essentially do away with the 70-30 split, putting all of the funds in the hands of Choose Life, Inc., the Ocala-based nonprofit that sponsors the plates. This would mean that Florida counties would see none of the funds, and the decision to give particular organizations a piece of the “Choose Life” pie would face less oversight.

In 2010, the Florida “Choose Life” plates generated $751,580 in sales.

Russ Amerling, of Choose Life Florida, says that the legislation would allow his group to use a portion of plate proceeds for promotional advertising, something his organization lacks.

“All the funds from other specialty plates go to the organizations sponsoring them,” Amerling says. “Plate sales have been falling off drastically because prices went up, and we don’t have the means to promote our plates.” Under the current law governing sales of the plate, Choose Life receieves no revenue.

Choose Life was founded in 1996 by Marion County Commissioner Randy Harris, who developed a plan to create the country’s first pro-life license plate. According to its website, the intent of the “Choose Life” plates is “to raise funds, and awareness, in support of women in crisis pregnancies who would commit to carrying their unplanned pregnancies to term and making an adoption plan for these babies, instead of aborting them.”

Stephanie Kunkel, the executive director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates, says Fasano’s legislation would “open the floodgates” to organizations that advertise themselves as “crisis pregnancy centers,” but do little more than distribute literature on the perils of abortion: “This would allow [those organizations] to advertise on billboards and in the Yellow Pages, but not require that the information they give pregnant women be medically or factually acturate.”

A previous Florida Independent report discovered that many Florida crisis pregnancy centers disseminate inaccurate medical information, including the claim that abortion causes mental illness. Dr. Nancy Russo, a psychology professor at Arizona State University and the co-author of a 2008 American Psychological Association Task Force on Abortion and Mental Health report, calls such claims “misleading.”

The Florida legislature attempted to pass a piece of legislation similar to Fasano’s in 2009, but its efforts were unsuccessful. “In 2009, it started as H.B. 49,” says Kunkel. “Rep. [Kurt] Kelly[, R-Ocala,] tried to amend the ‘Choose Life’ license plates onto his bill in committee but we killed the amendment. Then it was added successfully to H.B. 239 – a train license plate bill in the House, and was also amended onto S.B. 1560 successfully in the Senate.” Both S.B. 1560 and H.B. 239 died before coming up for a vote.

Sen. Fasano co-sponsored the legislation that initially led to the sale of the “Choose Life” plates in the state of Florida. Twenty-four other states sell similar plates, and there are efforts to do so in all but six states.

Kunkel warns that Fasano’s current law would let Choose Life decide “to give their funds to a women’s crisis center that lures women in with false advertising, but then doesn’t offer them any physical help, only inaccurate information on abortion.”

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