Around the curveLickety-split

Lovely car

Wasn't it

Roadside doggerel, sponsored by Burma Shave, was part of the fun of road travel long ago, when the world was young and the reforming spirit occasionally took a day off.

Nowadays, as America approaches perfection, the fine-tuners of life have returned their attention to the republic's remaining billboards. Here comes another of Washington's morality plays - playettes, really - pitting "activists" against an industry, the former fighting for beauty, the latter for profit.

But the billboard industry has two things to be said for it. It is defending an important right, and it is not as insufferably noble as its adversaries.

Bills now pending in Congress would amend the 1965 Highway Beautification Act, which provides compensation for owners required to dismantle billboards. In 1965 there were 1.1 million signs along the Federal Interstate and Primary Highway systems. Since then more than 700,000 have come down.

But dismantlings slowed drastically in the 1980s when federal appropriations for compensation became scarce. And in 1978 the outdoor advertising industry got the 1965 act amended to require state and local compensation for signs banned by changes in local zoning ordinances.

The new attack on billboards, tailored to this era of fiscal austerity, has one objectionable feature. It would allow state and local governments to ban billboards without paying compensation. Instead they could merely allow a grace period of amortization for owners to recoup in rentals a sum equal to construction costs.

At issue are the Fifth Amendment provisions of the Bill of Rights that say people shall not be deprived of property without due process and just compensation.

The billboard industry says the substitution of amortization for compensation is slow-motion confiscation, and the industry has a point. Imagine "amortizing" private homes for highway purposes, without compensation.

No one disputes the legitimacy of using government power to regulate signs. But the Constitution is not trivial, even when it inconveniences something as nobly named as Scenic America, the lead organization in the anti-billboard coalition of environmental groups.

It is disingenuous to dress up the proposed legislation in Jeffersonian language about "restoring local control." States already have the power to regulate, even ban billboards, with just compensation. The question is, shall constitutional values be disregarded because Americans would prefer not to pay the price - compensation - of an improvement they desire?

In this era of $400 billion deficits, Americans are adept at making others (the voiceless and voteless generations to come) pay a significant portion of the price of today's choices. Taking the property of billboard owners, and diminishing the value of the property of people who rent land for billboards, and doing this without proper compensation, fits today's political morality: Enjoy the benefit, make others pay.

Critics say billboards are "parasites" and "free riders," benefiting from highways but not contributing to their construction and maintenance. If so, that problem could be addressed by taxing them more heavily. On the other hand, people who live near high-density highways suffer inconveniences for which rental income from signs on their land can be partial compensation.

Some of those who are eager to get visual "litter" and "pollution" out of sight are unwilling to pay a fair price for property taken or devalued. They can fairly be suspected of relishing the prospect of wielding power over others. Call this "coercion pollution." It is a growing problem in the social environment.