Once again, lobbyists for the outdoor advertising industry are pursuing special-interest legislation in the 2018 Utah Legislature to further undermine citizens’ and local governments’ ability to decide how and where billboards should exist in their communities.
HB361, sponsored by House Majority Whip Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, will prohibit local leaders from placing restrictions on where a billboard is moved or relocated, unless local government can acquire that billboard within 90 days. This is the industry’s latest effort to maintain power and influence after losing a case in the Utah courts that recognized cities’ use of eminent domain for billboards. The case centered on Salt Lake City’s "audacity" several years ago to buy out a particularly troublesome billboard when its lease expired. The court’s ruling in SLC’s favor offended Reagan Outdoor Advertising, and it has turned to the Legislature to further limit any local control over billboards.
Most local governments do not have financial resources to buy out overpriced billboards. And already, under Utah statute, a local government may not limit the location, size or height of a billboard. HB361 sweetens this special privilege by further limiting towns’ and cities’ ability to even purchase a billboard.
Throughout my career as a public servant — as a planning commissioner, state legislator and mayor of Salt Lake City — I have argued that this brand of lawmaking represents the worst of politics. And it smacks of corruption.
I have great respect for people in elected office, and I believe most public leaders are committed to serving the public. But billboard special-interest legislation represents actions that detract from those generally good intentions, and is especially egregious in ignoring the public interest in our state’s beauty and local control.
Billboard laws began with President and Lady Bird Johnson’s push to protect the country’s fast-growing network of highways from roadside blight. The Highway Beautification Act of 1965 resulted in state statutes across the nation, including a Utah law that prohibited signs on rural highways and limited them in urban areas near highway interchanges.
Today, thanks to decades of billboard industry lobbying, the Utah statute has been turned on its head. Our current laws protect billboards and provide direct benefits to the industry. Special favors handed to the industry by the Utah State Legislature include:
- A free ride on taxes: Billboards are treated as depreciated personal property, but given exponentially greater value if a government wants or needs to remove them.
- Prohibiting towns and cities and property owners from redeveloping otherwise vacant lots where billboard companies have leases, harming economic development.
- Requiring property owners and local governments to remove any structures, including trees, that block the view of a billboard.
These favors for billboard companies exceed the protections afforded to any other industry in Utah.
How does this industry receive such extraordinary benefits?
Billboard companies understand that candidates running for office need campaign contributions and public exposure to be successful. Candidates understand that large signs in their districts attract attention, and a billboard at a reduced rate is a hard offer to refuse. The successful candidate is then approached by the billboard company for payback in the form of support for innocuous sounding laws. Examples include, "technical corrections" to an existing law, or addressing an “injustice” the billboard company suffered by a local government or court.
In the past two decades, the billboard industry spent over $1 million supporting state candidates in Utah.
Billboard statutes are so convoluted that legislators themselves often can’t decipher them. Typically, billboard legislation is introduced late in a busy legislative session. It flies through committee hearings with little debate or public notice, and in the rush to end a session, the bill passes with little debate.
This year’s HB361 is a case in point. It was introduced late in the session, and its complex wording suggests a mere "technical correction" to existing statute. And for unfortunate but politically understandable reasons, Salt Lake City leadership has offered no opposition to this bill, despite the clearly negative impact it will have on the community.
Enough is enough. Citizens opposed to visual blight, and to the influence pedaling of the Utah billboard industry, can help stop industry’s reign by contacting their state representatives, and by weighing in at the ballot box.