State Capital Bureau
JEFFERSON CITY - Perhaps you've noticed the recently mushrooming billboards along I-70-- springing up bigger and brighter than ever. Perhaps you've wondered at the number of advertisements along Missouri's roads -- three times more per mile than neighboring states -- or perhaps you just like reading them to stave off boredom while driving. These are signs of the times, signs of a dogfight between conservationists and advertisers. This November, Missouri voters will decide who wins.
The battle is on over the future of billboards in Missouri. It will be a vicious, no-holds-barred contest in which both sides accuse the other of deceiving the public's trust:
"It's unfortunate that the billboard industry feels it has to lie to Missouri citizens," said Karl Kruse, director of Save Our Scenery.
"Kruse is counting on the fact that Missouri voters will not read the proposition," said Bill May, executive director of the Missouri Outdoor Advertising Association and chairman of Citizens Against Tax Waste, the group set up to combat Proposition A.
Proposition A on the Nov. 7 ballot will ask voters to decide whether or not to amend Missouri's law regulating billboard advertising. Supporters of the proposition, led by the group Save Our Scenery, say it would outlaw construction of billboards along interstate and federal highways and leave existing billboards intact -- costing taxpayers nothing and preserving the scenic beauty along Missouri's highways.
Opponents of the proposition, led by the Missouri Outdoor Advertising Association, argue that the measure would cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. In this interpretation, the "fine print" of the initiative requires the removal of more than 25 percent -- almost 3,500 -- of the state's existing billboards. In that case, the state would have to compensate billboard owners for their financial loss.
One proposition and two interpretations: which is correct?
The main bone of contention lies in the "grandfathering" clause of the law. Currently, Missouri law sets specifications for the size, spacing and lighting setup of billboards. But billboards built before these specifications came into effect are protected, or "grandfathered," so they do not technically violate the law and do not have to be torn down.
In the advertisers' legal opinion, Proposition A uses extremely subtle legalese -- in a change of just three words -- to remove the grandfathering clause.
If signs not conforming to the legal specifications are no longer grandfathered, May says that the state will be required to tear down 3,415 such signs. Since Missouri's law has always required the destruction of a billboard on public property to be compensated for, tearing down those 3,415 non-conforming signs would carry a hefty price tag for tax-payers.
May's group hired a St. Louis lawyer, Gerald Gremain, to analyze the legal ramifications of the proposition. They also hired MU economist Edward Robb to tally the projected cost of compensating for the signs, which he estimates at between $525 and $600 million.
Julius Zomper, campaign manager for Save Our Scenery, finds Gremain's legal analysis "hysterical" and Robb's financial estimate "a fantasy figure." "The amendment will not require the removal of a single existing sign," Zomper said. While May insists that Proposition A removes the "grandfathering" clause, Zomper and his group deny it. They say the grandfathering language is contained in another section of the law that is not affected by Proposition A. State auditor Claire McCaskill and the director of Missouri's Transportation Department, Henry Hungerbeeler, have publicly agreed in letters with Zomper's interpretation.
But in the face of such seemingly powerful and objective opposition, May refuses to concede an inch. He says that the MoDOT letter is a misrepresentation-- that MoDOT actually opposes Proposition A because they know it would cost money to remove the billboards. Marci Horton, MoDOT director of outdoor advertising, expresses confusion at May's interpretation: "I don't know where he's getting that." And the state auditor? May says McCaskill wrote the letter as a favor to an old political friend. McCaskill could not be reached for comment.
Beyond the war of words and legalese lies an indisputable fact: if Proposition A passes, it will be bad for the billboard industry. May doesn't deny that the new proliferation of billboards is linked to the impending decision and possible restrictions. "Every time these folks set out to put us out of business, we want to build while we have the chance," May said. "These types of prohibitory initiatives spur people to build more."