BILLBOARD BACK STORY

A Banner Day for Foes of Advertising

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Monday, April 2, 2007

On Friday, the back story emerged of how, during the debate over the Iraq war funding bill, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) drove a stake through a measure protecting America's most unsightly billboards.

The amendment pushed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) as a "matter of personal importance" was a boon to the big-spending outdoor-advertising lobby. The move was aimed at rolling back regulations in the 1965 Highway Beautification Act stipulating that when natural disasters destroy "non-conforming" billboards -- usually those packed closely together or in scenic areas -- they are gone forever. The law left it to the states to define "destroyed" and choose which billboards should go. After recent hurricanes, billboard owners rebuilt some signs, leading the feds to threaten to withhold highway funds to at least two Southern states.

Enter Reid, seeking a law that "clarifies" states' authority on billboards, based on, his aide said, a frontiersman's belief in the sanctity of property rights.

But somebody in the federal bureaucracy wasn't buying that. A copy of Reid's letter reached Scenic America, an advocacy group that rivals roadside vegetation as billboards' biggest foe. Its chief, Kevin Fry, sounded the alarm that for the third time in a year, somebody was tacking a billboard-protection measure onto unrelated legislation.

Reid's amendment was scaled back to cover only hurricane-prone states. But that wasn't enough for Alexander, whose native Tennessee, with 3,000 non-conforming signs, was included in the measure. Grossing everyone out by calling the amendment a "big wet kiss" to the outdoor-ad industry, Alexander used a wily ploy to kill it, raising a point of order during debate: Isn't it against the rules to stick a legislative matter into an appropriations bill? Sustained.

Reid didn't buck that -- odd, observers said, since he'd pushed hard until the end. But both sides bet it won't be long before the measure, in some new guise, rises from the dead.

-- Elizabeth Williamson


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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