Good for business or bad for scenery? Salt Lake City renews battle with billboard industry

Published: Friday, April 13 2012 5:00 p.m. MDT

The lack of action by the Legislature came as a disappointment to billboard companies and a surprise to Becker and other Salt Lake City leaders.

"We firmly believe that, if given an opportunity, the Senate would have passed this bill," Young said. "Unfortunately, we ran out of time, and we didn't get to a vote."

Despite the setback, he said, "we firmly believe these changes need to occur."

Becker said he was pleased by the Legislature's failure to take action on electronic billboards. He credits the Utah League of Cities and Towns for helping Salt Lake City present a united front with other municipalities along the Wasatch Front.

The Utah County Council of Governments, made up of mayors and commissioners throughout the county, took a position against the billboard industry's proposal, and city leaders from Davis and Weber counties also spoke out against the bills.

"What was being proposed by the outdoor advertising folks was going to be very harmful for our communities," Becker said. "Ultimately, I think that's the reason legislation didn't get passed."

Influence on the hill

The Legislature's lack of action allows Salt Lake City to tackle the issue on its home turf rather than the state Capitol, where the outdoor advertising industry has a decided advantage.

Billboard companies, particularly Reagan, have long been one of the most influential groups on the hill, using generous campaign contributions and a slew of lobbyists to advance their agendas.

In the past 10 years, Reagan has donated more than $800,000 to local political campaigns, mainly to state legislators.

According to campaign finance disclosures through 2011, only seven of the 104 current members of the Utah Legislature have not accepted contributions from Reagan since 2009. Three of those seven were appointed to office in 2012.

That leaves four legislators — Reps. Roger Barrus, R-Centerville; Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake; Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights; and Kraig Powell, R-Heber City — who haven't accepted money from Reagan.

Powell doesn't accept campaign donations from any corporation, lobbyist or special interest group, he said, because "the tradeoff is so much on the negative side."

"Whether the inference or the assumptions are true or not, I think the appearance that campaign contributions create is negative enough that I decided, when I first ran for the Legislature, that I didn't want to be associated with that," Powell said.

Barrus said he chooses not to accept any money from the billboard industry because of a previous experience he had with a local company that was "very, very difficult to work with."

"That's a group that I'm not comfortable accepting funds from," he said, declining to offer any specifics about the situation that led to that decision.

Barrus said he received a check from Reagan shortly after being elected in 2000.

"I sent it back to them, thanking them for it, but asking them to take me off their list," he said. "And they have honored that."

Becker, who served in the state House for a little more than a decade before being elected mayor in 2007, also has never taken money from Reagan or other outdoor advertising companies.

Sen. Niederhauser, an ally of the outdoor advertising industry, has accepted more than $4,800 from Reagan since being elected in 2006. Rep. Brown, who did not respond to interview requests for this story, has received nearly $3,500 from Reagan since '06.

Niederhauser acknowledges that billboard companies have influence on the hill, but lawmakers ultimately answer to the public, he said, and that's what drives their decisions.

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