Follow the Money: Billboards and Utah politics

Posted at 9:57 PM, May 16, 2014
and last updated 2014-05-17 00:20:14-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah's biggest billboard company has a big footprint in Utah politics, and some local and state government leaders think they have carved out unfair exceptions in Utah law.

Reagan Outdoor Advertising (ROA) contributed $349,792.16 to state and local officials in Utah since 2011.

That's a total only topped by Hazardous Waste Disposal Company Energy Solutions among Utah corporations, though two interest groups also donated more.

ROA General Counsel Nate Sechrest said the company contributes to candidates who are interested in protecting property rights.

"We give to candidates who oppose over-regulation," Sechrest said, adding the company supports regulation it considers fair.

State Senator Steve Urquhart said billboard law has "perverted" Utah property law.

"I'm partly to blame," said Urquhart, who supported legislation favorable to billboard companies until he became aware of problems between the city of St. George and ROA.

The Utah League of Cities and Towns echoes Urquharts sentiments.

Ken Bullock, executive director of the league, said cities in Utah are hamstrung by several provisions in state law,

"I've been here almost 30 years and this has been an ongoing battle," Bullock said. "It's a battle where literally money is making the difference."

"Billboard companies are paying taxes as if those billboards are basically worthless," said Urquhart, adding that when a city chooses to purchase a billboard in order to use the land for another purpose, ROA values the property in the "...hundreds of thousands of dollars."

Such policy is fair, Sechrest said, saying that new billboards are essentially banned in "95 percent of cities in Utah."

That makes the billboards currently permitted precious commodities, and when they lose one, it devalues the billboards nearby that are often packaged together as what the industry calls "showings."

Since 2011, ROA has contributed to 185 candidates statewide, some with billboard space, some with money and some with both.

All but 16 members of the current legislature have gotten donations from ROA.

"I would say I probably get two to three requests for donations a week," Sechrest said, stressing that they don't make demands, but they do tell lawmakers how the billboard business would be impacted by legislation.

State Senator Luz Robles said she understands the complaints from cities, but billboard companies are restrained from expanding their business.

Also, she thinks they're effective advertising.

"I personally have used them as a campaign and like I said it would be hypocritical of me to say, 'I don't like billboards,'" Robles said.

"And those who say we've run roughshod over the code clearly haven't been paying attention for the last several years," Sechrest said.

Both sides said they want the law to be fair. Defining fair is the trick.

"I would say that we would like to see things completely fair, but instead billboards have a special target painted on their back," Sechrest said.

"When you're playing property rights in Utah, rock, paper, scissors, somebody throws billboards and they win. No questions asked," Urquhart said.