Senate leader's billboard boosting flops

Posted on March 30, 2007

WASHINGTON — Power and money suffered a rare setback in the Senate on Thursday as Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., stopped the top Senate Democrat from inserting a favor for the billboard industry into a must-pass emergency funding bill. Alexander raised a parliamentary point of order to force removal of the measure, which he and other opponents said would have effectively exempted certain billboards in 13 Southern states from regulation under the Highway Beautification Act. The move was a defeat for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who championed the provision, and for the Outdoor Advertising Association. The industry group's members and their employees gave more than $167,000 to congressional candidates in the last election cycle and spent more than $800,000 lobbying Congress last year. Reid wrote a letter to the committee that drafted the funding measure, asking that the billboard provision be added. Alexander, a member of the panel, said he wasn't even aware that it had been added. At issue was whether billboard owners could rebuild storm-damaged signs that would not be legal under regulations passed after the 1965 Highway Beautification Act. The law, passed at the urging of Lady Bird Johnson, the wife of then-president Lyndon Johnson, encourages states to ban billboards that are outsized, too close together or located in scenic areas. Older billboards that don't comply with the new regulations have been allowed to remain but cannot be rebuilt. The Outdoor Advertising Association contends the measure would not have changed the law but merely reasserted state legislatures' rights to interpret how to comply with it. "The replacement of damaged billboards is fundamental to the reconstruction of the local economy and infrastructure of areas ravaged by hurricanes," the association said in a statement. Alexander accused billboard owners of trying to sneak through legislation that wouldn't pass muster otherwise. "If we're going to gut Lady Bird's legacy, let's at least have the courage to debate it," he said. Reid did not oppose Alexander's point of order against tacking legislation onto a funding bill, an indication that the majority leader lacked the votes to prevail. "We will have to determine what steps, if any, we will take going forward," Reid spokesman Jon Summers said afterward. Billboard owners have tried three times to push the measure through Congress since last year, always by quietly attaching a provision to must-pass legislation, according to Kevin Fry of Scenic America, a non-profit group that favors enforcement of the beautification regulations. "We hope that this will now put an end to the billboard industry's persistent efforts to subvert the law and seek special privileges that it has no right to have and does not deserve," Fry said. "Beauty and community character have won today, and ugliness and greed have lost."