Billboard industry puts its money where its votes are

October 19, 1991|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Back in late July, it looked as if the billboard industry was about to lose one on Capitol Hill when a measure to ban further billboards along scenic highways seemed headed for approval.

But the industry had a friend in Pennsylvania: Representative Bud Shuster, whose surface transportation subcommittee was working on the measure. Mr. Shuster easily neutralized the ban with a few strokes of a pen, inserting a seemingly minor amendment that opponents say could keep the measure hung up in court for years.

As the subcommittee's ranking Republican, Mr. Shuster is in a position to similarly torpedo any other anti-billboard bill that comes along.

SG In recognition of this, the billboard industry has been friendly in

return. Although the 1992 election is more than a year away, billboard executives, lobbyists and family members have already contributed at least $70,050 to Mr. Shuster's re-election campaign, according to federal campaign reports.

That's about 65 percent of the itemized individual contributions he has received so far. Billboard-related political action committees have chipped in an additional $13,000.

It isn't the first time that the billboard industry has helped Mr. Shuster raise a large amount of money early on, and the tactic seems to have discouraged competition. Mr. Shuster has run unopposed since 1984, when he defeated "Beverly Hillbillies" actress Nancy Kulp by a 2-to-1 margin.

With only one major issue to occupy the industry's attention -- keeping billboards from being banned or removed from America's roads and highways -- the billboard lobby has made a habit of such well-focused spending, and Mr. Shuster's case demonstrates two small but important facts of Capitol Hill life.

The first: A narrow interest can win untold dividends with the help of only a few key lawmakers. The second: In an age of ever-costlier campaigns, most members of Congress now have two constituencies to look out for -- the voters back home and the big contributors everywhere else.

Billboards are not a particularly important industry to the economy of either Pennsylvania or Mr. Shuster's district, a rural, mountainous region anchored by the small city of Altoona. But he has been a rigorous supporter of the industry for years, helping out in the lobby's gradual dismantling of the 1965 Highway Beautification Act.

The act, a pet project of President Lyndon Johnson's wife, Lady Bird, was intended to remove most billboards from federal highways. But in the 25 years since its passage, the billboard lobby has managed to get the law changed bit by bit, adding exceptions and expensive compensation requirements, to the point where the Federal Highway Administration concluded that the act had become "a sign-industry-dominated program that is actually enriching and subsidizing the industry."

Industry payments to Mr. Shuster haven't been limited to campaign funds. Billboard companies and lobbyists have also supplemented his personal income with appearance fees, a practice that ended this year under a new ethics law. Before the ban took effect, Mr. Shuster got $7,000 in such payments from the industry in 1989 and 1990.

Such favors didn't stop with the congressman himself. The industry also paid honoraria to Mr. Shuster's longtime administrative assistant, Ann Eppard, who received $12,000 in such payments in 1989 and 1990.

Both the congressman and Ms. Eppard have said in the past that neither the payment of honorariums nor the campaign donations have the least effect on their actions. Ms. Eppard, who @also acts as Mr. Shus

ter's press spokeswoman, did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article.

Kippy Burns, spokesman for the billboard industry's biggest lobbying organization, the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, said of the contributions to Mr. Shuster: "Our members act like any other businesses do, in that they want to have access to congressmen and senators who have something to do with the issues they're interested in. That's about all I can say on this."

Anti-billboard groups such as Scenic America are discouraged by the industry generosity. "I wouldn't say it makes us cynical," said Hal Hiemstra, the organization's policy director. "It just means that our effort is going to take longer and will be harder than we anticipated. But it is still winnable."

But the billboard industry also has its share of friends in the Senate, where its supporters beat back a recent attempt to reduce the compensation paid for removed billboards.

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