WASHINGTON (AP) - Call it quartermania.
Rep. Michael Castle's proposal to mint quarters commemorating the 50 states is picking up steam. It won the crucial, if reluctant, support of Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin on Friday.
Congress still must pass legislation, but already there's talk in Illinois of putting Chicago Bull Michael Jordan on the back of the two-bits, opposite George Washington. The Chicago Tribune speculated on its front page about immortalizing the basketball hero in coin.
But tradition-minded West Virginia legislators prefer their state seal on their quarter.
"I can't think of anything else you would look at immediately and think of West Virginia," said Bob Kiss, speaker of the state House. "I'm sure we'll spend weeks debating it."
New York Assemblyman Jack McEneny, a historian, said state seals would make quarters look too much like state coinage. He favors the Statue of Liberty or Niagara Falls for New York.
"You'd have to use something symbolic," he said.
Whatever Wisconsin chooses, it won't be a cow, said state Rep. Marlin Schneider.
"I think we've milked that for all its worth," he said.
In a letter to Castle, R-Del., Rubin said he wants a design process that "will ensure that no frivolous or inappropriate designs are adopted." Two existing federal panels - the Citizens Commemorative Coin Advisory Committee and the Fine Arts Commission - would review designs submitted by state officials. The Treasury secretary would have the final say.
Castle, chairman of the House Banking monetary policy subcommittee, is promising to speed legislation to President Clinton's desk as soon as Congress returns from its summer recess in September.
He proposes that the U.S. Mint issue five new quarters a year, starting in 1999. Designs commemorating states would replace the American eagle on the reverse. Washington would remain on the front. The quarters would be the same size and weight and would work in vending machines. They'd be educational, Castle said.
"When you get change at toll gates, kids will scramble to look at the coins. For $12.50 they can collect them all. You're going to teach kids something about history," he said.
He's already secured the backing of top GOP leaders, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas.
The Senate Banking Committee chairman, Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, R-N.Y., called the idea brilliant.
"It will improve our economy and strengthen our country by raising as much as $5 billion toward deficit reduction while at the same time promoting state pride," D'Amato said.
A study commissioned by the Treasury Department found that the government would earn between $2.6 billion and $5.1 billion because many people would save the quarters, which cost the government only a few cents to make.
Rubin already is authorized by legislation enacted last October to mint the quarters. But, in a letter to Castle, he asked lawmakers to decide after sorting out the pros and cons.
"If Congress directs us to proceed with the 50 state commemorative quarter program, the Department of the Treasury stands ready to implement it," he said.
Citing a study commissioned by his department, Rubin conceded that minting new quarters "has clear economic advantages," that "there are no logistical or manufacturing capacity problems" and that public opinion polls show "a substantial degree of interest."
However, he said he was "concerned that this program could affect the public's perception of our coinage."
"The dignified design of our coinage and currency is an important consideration, and every citizen should be able to be proud that our money includes elements symbolic of the basic principles of our nation," he said.
If approved, the new quarters would mark the first change in circulating coinage since the introduction in 1979 of the dollar coin depicting 19th century feminist Susan B. Anthony. And it would be the first change in the quarter since 1975 and 1976, when the reverse side depicted a colonial drummer.