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N.C. lawmakers passed bad billboard bill; veto it, governor

From Ryke Longest, a clinical professor of law at Duke University School of Law:

While the people of North Carolina pay serious money to maintain the beautiful roads of our state, our legislators are giving a large corporate subsidy to billboard companies. Subsidizing ad sales for publicly-traded corporations makes little sense when North Carolina has a backlog of requests to maintain the roads that generate the ad revenue, but North Carolina’s General Assembly has caved to pressure from the billboard lobby once again.

For two legislative sessions in a row, the billboard industry has asked for favors from Jones Street and gotten them. This year, the favors are tucked into HB 74, a bill containing two provisions which attempt to make a giveaway of state resources to the billboard industry permanent.

As mayor of Charlotte, Pat McCrory took a leadership role defending the rights of communities to protect themselves from billboard blight. As candidate for governor, McCrory took the General Assembly to task for enacting legislation enabling cutting of public trees. Now, Gov. McCrory has an opportunity to veto a bad bill which senselessly handcuffs local governments.

In 1965, the U.S. Congress enacted the Highway Beautification Act with the intent of restricting the growth of billboards and junkyards along our nation’s public highways. The act restricts billboards to areas where they were allowed by local or state zoning laws. States are required to demonstrate that they have effectively controlled billboards under the act or risk losing 10 percent of their federal highway appropriations.

The General Assembly’s enactment of HB 74 gives billboard companies the right to completely rebuild aging billboards with new steel structures, even in areas that are not zoned for billboards. This creates a permanent monopoly for the holders of current permits. The price for this privilege is too low to be believed. The company must pay a $60 permit renewal fee to the state each year, as well as property taxes on the value of the sign structure. In the case of one sign west of Winston Salem on I-40, the billboard advertising company paid a whopping $9.84 in county property taxes, while the typical North Carolinian pays more than $1,000 per year in property taxes. In 2012, the company paid $69.84 to the county and the state for using I-40. Using a conservative estimate of billboard revenue at $3,000 per month, the annual cost to billboard companies is less than its revenue for a single day.

Last session, our legislature passed a bill to permit the billboard advertising companies to clear cut the right-of-way for 425 feet at each sign face, 850 feet for a two-sided billboard. For this additional privilege, the billboard advertising company pays a whopping $200, less than the cost of administering the program.

As our roads become more congested, only one user group profits more without paying more-billboard companies. There are more than 7,000 permitted billboards on North Carolina’s state roads. The current fee structure is not sufficient to cover the costs of administering the programs, according to the North Carolina Department of Transportation. Any typical driver will pay more to the state for using our roads than a typical billboard will.

We should be tolling the billboard companies for every person that passes by and sees the signs. Service station owners in North Carolina have to absorb some of the cost of the state’s gas tax to remain competitive with stations in neighboring states. N.C. drivers already pay far more in taxes and fees to support the roads than drivers in surrounding states. Subsidizing billboards is unfair to North Carolinians whose tax dollars support the traffic that give the billboards value. All who use the roads of the “Good Roads” state should pay their fair share. Toll the billboards, not the people.

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