Data Highlight: Billboards versus trees

The billboard industry is not one of the 10 biggest spending special-interests groups, like the big banks, utilities, and developers — but it is one of the most persistent.  And the money is not insignificant.

The outdoor advertising industry, as it calls itself, is back in the NC General Assembly this year with a proposal to widen the swath of trees it can cut along public highways so motorists can see their signs.  Similar bills have failed before, but the industry is trying again and recently convinced a state House committee to go along. Conservation groups strongly oppose the bill (H-1583).  For background, see: http://www.newsobserver.com/politics/story/1564419.html.

A new analysis by Democracy North Carolina shows that NC Outdoor Advertising Association’s political action committee (PAC) and industry officials donated more than $160,000 in the past four years (1/2005-12/2008). See our chart at: http://www.democracy-nc.org/moneyresearch/2009/blbdpac.xls

Like many lobby groups, the billboard industry spreads its money around, giving dozens of lawmakers contributions, with the largest amounts reserved for the legislative leadership. For example, on April 30, 2008, the billboard PAC sent checks ranging from $500 to $2,000 to 34 legislators. A week later, it sent checks to 24 more. Altogether, the industry donated to more than 100 legislators and state officials during the 2006 and 2008 election cycles.

The industry does a good job of remembering its friends and targeting who gets left out.  Democracy North Carolina compared the Outdoor Association PAC’s list of 2008 NC House recipients to how these elected officials voted on the last major piece of legislation promoted by the billboard industry: H-429, a controversial bill that eventually became law and allows billboard companies to recover more money from local governments when their billboards violate new ordinances. Many of the House members who voted on H-429 in 2003 have left the legislature, but of those who ran for re-election in 2008, here’s who the billboard PAC supported or overlooked:

  • Of the 16 current House members who consistently voted against the industry’s bill in 2003, only 2 received an industry PAC donation for their 2008 campaign (the two are Rep. Joe Hackney, who is now Speaker, and Rep. Becky Carney, who now co-chairs the House Transportation Committee; both are crucial gatekeepers for legislation about highway billboards).
  • Of the 33 legislators who received an industry PAC donation in 2008 and who were in the House in 2003, 31 or 94% of the 33 voted with the industry.

This kind of tight correlation is another reason why reformers support providing candidates with an alternative way to finance their campaigns, such as through a Voter-Owned public financing program.

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