One of the more controversial proposals of this year’s legislative session is a pair of bills aimed at limiting billboards statewide, which has set off a public feud among business interests, pitting the trucking industry against the outdoor advertising business.
What’s unique about such a clash in Louisiana, though, is that it’s not just the billboard industry the truckers are taking on—it’s Lamar Advertising.
As the third-largest publicly traded company in the state and headquartered in Baton Rouge for more than 100 years, Lamar wields significant influence in Louisiana and has deep community ties, especially in the Capital City.
The company, which often flies under the publicity radar, has pushed back strongly against the billboard legislation, calling it “anti-business” and “an assault” on Lamar and the more than 3,500 local businesses that advertise on its billboards. Lamar also launched its own public campaign opposing the legislation.
The trucking industry, which is behind the campaign in support of the bills, is well-aware of what it’s up against.
“It feels like it’s become David and Goliath,” says Chance McNeely, executive director of the Louisiana Motor Transport Association. “At end of the day, everyone in Louisiana knows we have a billboard problem. … No one wants to talk about it because Lamar is here.”
The issue, he says, is the amount of billboards distracting drivers on the road, which leads to more accidents, more claims and insurance rates five times as high as the national average for trucks. The Republican sponsors of the bills, state Sen. Conrad Appel and Rep. Jack McFarland, agree the effort is about safety and reducing the “visual clutter” of billboards.
Amid strong opposition from Lamar, a House committee quickly killed McFarland’s measure on April 16. Appel’s bill was still to be taken up by the Senate as of publication deadline.
“To me it equates almost to litter,” Appel says. “I don’t have a problem with the business side—I’m probably the strongest business guy in the Legislature. I just don’t like it. The bill doesn’t tear down billboards. It puts a moratorium on growth.”
Lamar not only contests claims that Louisiana has more billboards than most other states, but also says there’s no evidence indicating the advertisements distract drivers. Instead, the company suggests the real target of the legislation is not billboards at all but the injury attorneys who advertise on them.
“It’s a special interest who is mad at someone else and attacking us,” says Lamar’s Vice President of Government Relations Hal Kilshaw, who estimates about 15% of the roughly 8,000 billboards statewide advertise injury attorneys.
What is clear, if history is any indication, is that the legislation—which would stall the issuance of new state permits for billboards—faces a mighty challenge.
An effort in the 1990s to ban billboards along Interstate 49 from Lafayette to Shreveport took four years to pass the Legislature, and even when it did, it was amended to a ban on 70% of the interstate stretch. Bill Robertson, founder of the now-dormant group Scenic Louisiana, an affiliate of Scenic America, led the charge and remembers who spearheaded the resistance back then—Lamar.
“I have to hand it to those guys. They’re formidable,” Robertson says. “They’re among the biggest billboard companies in the country now, and the idea they’d have a prohibition on growth in their home state is probably a huge insult to them personally.”
Despite this, the trucking industry and the lawmakers sponsoring the bills are still standing firm, saying they’re prepared to take on the challenge facing them. Yet, others continue to ask: What is this actually about?
Lamar and others in the advertising industry say it’s a disguised effort to go after the trial attorneys who target big trucks in their advertisements. The trucking industry denies this is the reason for the legislation, though McNeely does admit it’s a concern.
“You want to talk about an industry under assault, trucking is certainly under assault by a handful of trial lawyers using billboards,” McNeely says. “This bill would still allow them to advertise. It’s demeaning to our industry that certain attorneys demonize trucks in ads, but that’s a symptom of the core issue, which is we have way too many billboards.”
Louisiana Association of Business and Industry President and CEO Stephen Waguespack says the billboard legislation “misses the mark.” Louisiana is oversaturated with trial lawyer advertisements, he says, but these bills do not address that. Instead, Waguespack suggests a better approach is to take the bar association to task and to support more practical measures like legislation to reduce auto insurance rates.
The campaign in support of the billboard moratorium, called “Take Back Our Highways,” cites distracted driving and blight, with no mention of trial attorneys.
Lamar is firing back on all fronts, disputing claims Louisiana has an above-average number of billboards. While LMTA says Louisiana has 2% of the nation’s highways and 10% of its billboards, Lamar argues the numbers are inaccurate, saying the state has just 2% of the national share. And the company also disputes the distracted driving claim.
“There’s plenty of evidence that billboards aren’t a distraction,” Kilshaw says. “90 percent of distractions are inside the car.”
But Louisiana billboard-ban supporters are not alone in their efforts. Four states—Hawaii, Alaska, Vermont and Maine—have banned billboards completely, while Rhode Island and Oregon prohibit new billboards. Several cities in Texas have similar ordinances.
This is why the trucking industry feels as though their proposal is a modest one. McNeely says they’re not asking to tear down billboards, but to halt permitting new ones. And his industry is willing to compromise, he says, on one of the more controversial provisions of the legislation, which would require billboards to be placed within 3 miles of the establishment it is advertising.
“We don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest having a little more regulation,” McNeely says. “Our industry feels confident we’re on the right side of this issue.”