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"Peanuts" fans are a step closer to being able to celebrate their passion on the bumpers of their cars this week after the state Assembly passed a bill authorizing a new license plate featuring a picture of the dog Snoopy.

The plate, which still faces a vote in the Senate, would raise money for the state's 1,400 museums and science centers, many of which struggle to make ends meet relying on ticket sales to visitors, said Celeste DeWald, executive director of the California Association of Museums. Only about a quarter of those museums are art-oriented, which makes them eligible for separate state funding programs.

"I think Snoopy is a good symbol," she said. "Museums in California send the message that museums are for everyone, and everyone loves Snoopy."

Even though the state legislature has yet to authorize the plate, the association already has a list of 8,000 motorists ready to buy. The legislature and Department of Motor Vehicles require that a new specialty plate get at least 7,500 preorders before it can go into production.

The plate was created by Jean Schulz, widow of Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz, who suggested it as a way of boosting the fortunes of struggling museums more than a decade ago. She donated the Snoopy image for the effort.

Backers estimate that the plate could generate more than $8 million in its first 10 years, with about $6 million going to museums and the rest divided between the museum association, the endowment, and the DMV, said Mimi Morris, executive officer of the California Cultural and Historical Endowment, which will handle the money.

The endowment plans to create a competitive grant program for museums to apply for the money, using it for both facilities improvements and operational expenses.

The plate would be a great image boost for Santa Rosa's Charles M. Schulz Museum, Director Karen Johnson said, but would likely not provide any direct financial benefit because Jean Schulz has said the museum will not apply for any of the money so as not to take away from museums in more dire financial need.

Schulz is a principal in Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat, Petaluma Argus-Courier and Sonoma Index-Tribune.

Featuring Charles M. Schulz's iconic Snoopy on the plate "continues to tell the story of how significant his work was, that it's enduring and timeless and people continue to be drawn to it," Johnson said.

If approved, the Snoopy plate would join the 12 types of specialty plates already circulating in California, with more than 900,000 motorists ordering them. They honor — and fund — a variety of causes, including agricultural education, preservation of Yosemite and Lake Tahoe, services for veterans and fallen firefighters, and support for state and local anti-terrorism programs.

Three more plates are pending: a plate to support efforts to spay and neuter pets is expected to go into production later this year, while plates to support organ donations and to reproduce the classic blue, black, and yellow plates of the 1950s, '60s, and '70s are collecting pre-orders.

The plates bring in about $2 million a month, according to the latest DMV figures, and the most successful so far has been a design dedicated to efforts to protect endangered whales. That plate has brought in more than $75 million since it was created in 1997.

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But the program has not been without critics. A report by the California State Auditor in April identified a variety of problems, including sloppy management and sketchy accounting by the Department of Motor Vehicles and agencies that were supposed to handle the special funds. It estimated that DMV had undercharged motorists by about $20 million between 2010 and 2012. At the same time, it incorrectly charged various special funds for administrative costs, overcharging some and undercharging others.

Agencies responsible for monitoring the special funds were criticized for failing to monitor contracts, for spending money on ineligible activities and for failing to notify potential beneficiaries of the funds, as required by law, among other problems.

Auditors concluded most of the problems could be corrected fairly easily with better recordkeeping and accounting and the agencies involved have agreed to make changes in the wake of the report.

The report did nothing to dampen the legislature's enthusiasm for specialty plates. The Snoopy plate is one of four proposed in this session, including a breast cancer awareness plate and one to fund restoration of the Salton Sea.

The sponsor of the Snoopy plate, Assembly Majority Leader Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, said her district is home to 20 museums or institutions that could benefit from the fame that the "Peanuts" character would bring to the plate.

"Museums need financial support to remain viable and to keep entry fees affordable for all Californians," she said. "Snoopy is a beloved American icon and having his 'endorsement' is sure to increase sales of the license plate."

Because the legislature has not yet authorized the plate, the DMV does not have information on its website, but the California Association of Museums has created a site with information and a page to sign up: www.snoopyplate.com.

(You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com.)