'Billboard King' Reid Looks to Leave Mark on Senate War Funding Measure

By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 27, 2007

In a (quite) large sign that protecting U.S. troops isn't the only thing on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's mind these days, the Nevada Democrat inserted an item into the Senate's Iraq war funding bill -- safeguarding billboards.

Senate debate began yesterday on the bill, which provides $122 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; sets a goal of March 31, 2008, for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq; and -- if Reid has his way -- allows thousands of billboards destroyed by bad weather to be rebuilt.

For the senator, who has referred to himself as the King of Billboards, "it's a constituent issue, but it's a value that he believes in," said Reid spokesman Jon Summers.

The battle over billboards began in 1965, when the Highway Beautification Act set a policy that "nonconforming" billboards -- defined by states but usually meaning those packed closely together, or in scenic areas -- would be allowed to die of natural causes. As storms and other acts of God destroyed them, their owners would not be permitted to replace them. Recent hurricanes have fueled a fight between the powerful Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA), which wants to roll back the federal law, and opponents led by Washington-based Scenic America, which decry billboards as "visual pollution."

On March 15, Reid wrote Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va) asking for a provision that "clarifies" the rules governing rebuilding of "outdoor structures" after natural disasters.

"This is a matter of personal importance to me," the majority leader wrote, a comment that "goes back to the values," Summers said. Meaning that out west, "there's a big sense of independence, and your property is your property," Summers said.

About 40 billboard companies operate in Nevada. Over the past two years, Reid's Searchlight Leadership Fund has received $6,000 in contributions from the OAAA's political action committee.

The OAAA represents a booming industry that earned $7 billion nationwide in revenue last year, but it emphasizes the role of billboards in advertising local businesses. Association spokesman Ken Klein said Reid's amendment aims to reverse "a pattern of overreaching" by the federal government, which threatened to withhold highway funds to Florida when companies rebuilt nonconforming billboards hit by hurricanes in 2004. Reid's bill would have prevented such actions.

Kevin Fry, president of Scenic America, said: "The bill carves out an exception to local land-use rules for a single industry that is not available to any other. . . . One might reasonably ask why legislation affecting the South and Southeast was introduced by a senator from Nevada."

Reid's request went to the Appropriations subcommittee on transportation, which pared it back to apply to 13 mostly hurricane-prone states, instead of all 50. The law would come up for renewal in 24 months.

Scenic America is fighting the amendment, which "sets a destructive precedent that will certainly be revisited anytime natural disasters take their toll on nonconforming billboards," Fry said. "The two-year time frame is a joke."

The OAAA sees the measure as a "positive step," Klein said. "Senator Reid is a longtime supporter of mobility, tourism and property rights. We appreciate those principles."

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