Can States Ever Have Too Many Official Symbols?

By: - March 11, 2005 12:00 am

Official state symbols are beginning to suffer from the same malady as the Olympics — increasingly obscure categories. Just as traditional sports like swimming and track share the Olympic spotlight with rhythmic gymnastics and ice dancing, so must state birds and flowers share their place with state cookies and tartans.  

This legislative session alone, a motley crew of literally symbolic bills would make such things as the mythical “jackalope,” Venus flytrap and hot air balloon the official state … something.

“They’re bordering on the ridiculous,” said South Dakota state Sen. Brock Greenfield (R). Referring to a recent bill to make the Tyrannosaurus rex the state dinosaur — despite the triceratops’ status as state fossil, Greenfield said, “Maybe next we go [for] the state flying dinosaur, the pterodactyl.”

Some little-known categories that walk the fine line between fun and frivolity are an official state necktie (Arizona’s Bola tie), muffin (Minnesota’s blueberry) and mushroom (Oregon’s Pacific Golden Chanterelle). Thirteen states designate an official state tartan.

Some states have multiple categories to honor the same thing. Texas, with 39 symbols, enshrines the bluebonnet as its state flower. It also has a bluebonnet city, a bluebonnet festival, a bluebonnet trail and a state flower song (aptly titled, “Bluebonnets”). Massachusetts, which has 41 symbols, named Dr. Seuss its state children’s author and illustrator, but chose a non-Seuss title as its state children’s book (Robert McCloskey’s “Make Way for Ducklings”). 

And lawmakers are clamoring for more.

Two weeks after the South Dakota Senate voted down the T-Rex — with Greenfield saying he saw no need for a state dinosaur — the Senate showed it saw the need for a state bread, designating fry bread, a Native American staple. Gov. Mike Rounds (R) has signed that into law.

Sometimes a bill is needed to codify the obvious. This year a Florida legislator made a long-overdue proposal to designate the orange as Florida’s state fruit. With the orange already the state flower and its juice the official drink, Florida is finally making an honest fruit out of the orange.

There are other notable requests from this session:

  • A bill by New Mexico Sen. Steve Komadina (R) to make the hot air balloon the state aircraft. Komadina, a past president of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, also introduced a bill to limit hot-air-balloon tort liability.
  • Legislation to make the jackalope Wyoming’s official mythological creature. If it passes, the jackalope, a cross between an antelope and a jackrabbit, would be the first state mythological creature in the United States.
  • A measure to declare the Venus flytrap North Carolina’s official carnivorous plant. This, too, would be the country’s first such designation.
  • A bill to make the tomato New Jersey’s state vegetable, which causes a dilemma because tomatoes are actually fruits. However, the bill’s sponsors referenced an 1893 U.S. Supreme Court decision in which the court classified the tomato as a vegetable because it is served with dinner, not dessert.

Already this session the big-eared bat has become Virginia’s state bat and the alligator Mississippi’s state reptile.

“State symbols, they give you a source of pride,” said Mississippi Sen. Tommy Moffatt (R), who sponsored the alligator bill. “They let people know what we have in the state, what we enjoy.”

Although a state symbol bill may seem like a non-issue, such bills don’t always fly through the legislature. In 1989 the New Mexico Legislature battled over the state cookie — not which cookie, but how to spell it.

The bill nominated the “bizcochito,” but another legislator introduced an amendment to change that to “biscochito.”

Several lawmakers got on the House floor to press for the “s” or “z”. When the bill headed to the Senate — as “biscochito” — the Senate returned it as “bizcochito.” The Senate version eventually prevailed.

Controversy sometimes follows a state symbol designation. The animal rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, recently sent letters to the governors of Alaska and Nebraska asking them to ban fishing of their state fishes, the king salmon and the channel catfish, respectively.

Both governors said they had no intention of ending the practice.

Last month Alabama banned stores from selling its state spirit, the Conecuh Ridge Alabama Fine Whiskey, because the founder pleaded guilty to liquor law violations, including selling a case of whiskey to an 18-year-old.

The Legislature currently is working on repealing Conecuh’s state status.

State symbol bills often are initiated at the behest of schoolchildren, who use them to learn hands-on about the legislative process. In Missouri, fifth-graders at Chinn Elementary School in Kansas City, Mo., made lapel pins of googly-eyed bullfrogs holding an American flag for the state’s 197 legislators to wear during the vote for state amphibian.

Moffatt offered to sponsor the Mississippi alligator bill for St. Alphonsus Elementary School students in Ocean Springs, Miss., who researched why the alligator should be the state reptile. “They probably know more about the operation of state government than most adults,” Moffatt said.

Of course, there are inevitably lawmakers who say legislative time shouldn’t be spent on state symbols.

“I understand the lighthearted side of this, but I just feel that we are in a sacred institution,” Greenfield said. “In a sense it’s a mockery of that institution to bring forth legislation such as this.”

But instead of voting against the bills, dissenters can get creative and do what the colleagues of New Mexico state Sen. Joseph Carraro (R) did. Carraro sponsored a bill last month to change the state’s Latin motto from “Crescit Eundo” (It Grows as it Goes) to “Antiqua Suspice, Crastina Accipe” (“Respect the Past, Embrace the Future”), saying the current motto made no sense.

The Senate committee recommended the bill, but struck Carraro’s suggested motto for their own: “Gracias a Dios por Mississippi.”

That means, “Thank God for Mississippi.”

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