A bill passed Thursday by the Senate allowing Kansas to print “Don’t Tread on Me” license plates came under scrutiny by Democrats for its association with a former slave owner.

Under House Bill 2166, several types of distinctive license plates would be authorized to support state educators and veterans, and raise money to fight childhood cancer. Another provision authorized production of the Don’t Tread on Me plates, modeled after the Gadsden flag.

Christopher Gadsden, the designer of the yellow flag bearing a hissing snake, was a merchant and slave owner. He also built a wharf in Charleston, where an estimated 100,000 enslaved Africans landed in the United States.

These negative connotations pushed several Senators to speak out against the package despite a desire to support other plates that could bring awareness and funding to good causes.

“We should recoil that we’re going to put Gadsden’s name and this flag that represents slavery in our Kansas record,” said Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, Kansas, who voted in favor of the measure. “I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater for all the good that 2166 does to support those other organizations, but I hope we’ll do a public education campaign to make sure those that bear the Don’t Tread on Me flag are tacitly supporting a vile, racist, slavery-oriented past.”

The bill passed the Senate with 31 in favor and five against the proposal. A handful of legislators abstained from voting. 

The distinctive license plate package passed through the House without opposition before it was amended by the Senate Transportation Committee to include the Gadsden flag. 

During debate Wednesday in the Senate, Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, D-Lenexa, proposed an amendment to remove the controversial flag from the measure. She said the license plate should have an individual committee hearing where concerns may be voiced before final approval.

“We don’t have other plates that have the potential for controversy like this one does,” said Sykes, who voted against the bill. “Yes, there are other states that have this. There are other states that have the confederate flag on their license plates, but Kansas doesn’t, and Kansas has always stood as a free state.”

Sen. J.R. Claeys, a Salina Republican, said the plate has received hearings in a House committee in previous years. He said the flag represented limited government and gun rights, with proceeds benefiting the Kansas Rifle Association.

“I would be super supportive of a license plate that we are a free state. I would be very supportive of an ‘I support public education’ license plate,” Claeys said. “These license plates are worthy of our consideration, and we should be offering more variety of license plates.”

Sykes’ amendment failed 15-15, short of the majority needed to approve the change.

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, chose to pass when voting on the bundle. She said approving license plate after license plate demonstrated Kansas had lost focus on what they are for.

“They’re there to identify a vehicle. They’re not there to supplant a bake sale,” McGinn said. “I hope as we move forward, we really think about all the different tags that we come up with and focus on why we have licensed tags.”

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