Lobbyists pushing for looser regulations on electronic billboards

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- They've been called "highway jumbotrons" and "TV on a stick," but no matter what you call the bright electronic billboards, a powerful industry is hoping you'll be seeing a lot more of them in the near future.

For the third time, the powerful billboard industry is working aggressively to convince lawmakers to lift a ban on the billboards near state roads.

Everyone who has driven along I-5 in Fife on reservation land has surely seen where the state ban doesn't apply. The behemoth electronic billboards are hard to miss.

State Sen. Curtis King of Yakima is a big backer of a bill to lift the ban.

"If I didn't think it was a good bill to begin with, I wouldn't have sponsored it," King said.

King introduced the bill as chair of the powerful Transportation Committee after billboard lobbyists practically wrote it for him.

"Well, I don't know if they handed (the bill) to me, but they probably had the language that we used and, so it seemed reasonable," he said.

At a recent hearing, some lawmakers were so unaware of the details in the bill that they deferred to billboard industry officials to answer basic questions. Some senators seemed to have not even read the bill.

Fall City has two state roads going through town that, theoretically, could be places were the bill might apply.

Bright digital billboards measuring more than 670-square feet would be allowed on the roads as long as the city said it was okay. Some residents think that would be a horrible idea.

"I just think they're tacky," said one resident.

The bill would leave it up to each city to decide if they wanted the billboards, but critics of the bill say that's exactly what the billboard lobby wants. They say once the state is out of the way, the industry would direct its muscle to small, cash-strapped town councils.

"Divide and conquer," said Jill Jensen of Scenic Tacoma.

The billboard industry has a reputation for suing municipalities for big money.

"Oh, I think that they are very powerful, very monied. They're spending a great deal of money right now across the country," said Paula Lees of Keep Washington Beautiful.

To sweeten the offer, billboard companies said they might remove several regular billboards for every new digital one if the law is changed. While some say that would be a fair trade, it's not actually included in the bill.

Free emergency messaging is also part of the pitch, but the language in the bill specifically says the free messaging would be voluntary, not required.

Clear Channel Outdoor, which is the largest billboard company in the country, said they don't consider the bill dead because it never got a vote, and they're vowing to bring it back again next year.

Company officials say the digital billboards help small-business owners who are running out of ways to advertise.