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America's Dairyland license plate "COWS"

A state lawmaker plans to introduce legislation that proposes having a contest among high school students to determine Wisconsin's license plate and slogan.

A Wisconsin lawmaker wants a new design for state license plates and a potential new slogan that would replace “America’s Dairyland” to come from a contest among state high school students.

Rep. Scott Allen, R-Waukesha, is looking for co-sponsors for his proposed bill that would have a state art education association conduct the contest and choose the 10 best designs and then have the governor pick the winning design for the new license plate from those 10.

“I think it will be absolutely fascinating to see how our young people think and how they would like to see us positioned in the state and advertised across the country,” Allen said.

“If they want to incorporate America’s Dairyland into their design, they can,” Allen said. “If they want to come up with a whole new design, a whole new slogan, they can do that as well.”

Allen’s proposal follows a call last month by Kurt Bauer, executive director of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, to change the “America’s Dairyland” slogan.

Bauer said it’s time for state residents, some of whom like to be called “Cheeseheads,” to reimagine their identities for the 21st century. The slogan has been on the state’s license plates since 1948.

Leaders of the state’s dairy and cheesemaking industries ripped the proposal.

Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association executive director John Umhoefer took exception with a line in Allen’s memo seeking co-sponsors that said the state does much more than make cheese and that its license plates “should reflect who we are, not who we were.”

“Dairy isn’t ‘who we were.’ It is, without question, where we are going as a state,” Umhoefer said in a statement, noting the dairy industry generates $43.4 billion in economic activity, directly supports tens of thousands of jobs in the state and produces 3 billion pounds of cheese a year, first in the nation. “It’s disappointing that Rep. Allen would fail to celebrate Wisconsin’s hardworking dairy farm families and cheesemakers.”

John Holevoet, director of government affairs for the Dairy Business Association, also questioned why Allen wants to do away with a slogan that conveys a positive image for the state.

“The fact that we’re America’s Dairyland is something people like about us. Why would we want to throw that away on a contest to rename it?” he said. “Many other states have no identity and spend lots of time and money trying to establish one and having nothing to show for it. So from a business, marketing perspective, this is not a smart idea.”

Allen said he isn’t proposing legislature just to change the state slogan. “All options should be on the table and let’s have a statewide conversation about how we portray ourselves,” he said.

But Allen didn’t hide his distaste for the slogan. He said 70 percent of state residents live in urban areas and said the current slogan doesn’t reflect today’s population or workforce.

The bill includes a list of 17 words or phrases that Allen said he hoped would serve as inspiration for the designs, leaning toward Wisconsin’s bioscience and high-tech manufacturing industries. Among them: “Authentic,” “pioneering” and “approachable.”

“We think (the words) characterize the spirit of Wisconsin and the people of Wisconsin and what we are about here,” Allen said. “It’s really to get them thinking. It’s not a limitation but a mind-jogger to encourage inspiration.”

The bill would require the state Department of Transportation to contract with the Wisconsin Art Education Association to conduct the contest in 2018 and give the high school artist who provides the winning design a $1,000 scholarship.

The details are still being hammered out, but if the proposal becomes law the 10 winning designs would be chosen during the association’s state conference in October and would involve more than 400 art teachers who regularly attend the conference, according to Tiffany Beltz, the president of the Wisconsin Art Education Association.

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Rob Schultz has won multiple writing awards at the state and national levels and covers an array of topics for the Wisconsin State Journal in south-central and southwestern Wisconsin.