Mikulski's plea for billboards

Dan Rodricks

November 01, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

We all know how passionate Sen. Barbara Mikulski can be when, compelled by principle or provoked by outrage, she stands to speak. Be it on the floor of the U.S. Senate or on the stage at the Steelworkers Hall, Mikulski is always energetic, spirited, even eloquent. Her soliloquy on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court was impassioned and inspiring.

Mikulski speaks frequently and loudly -- and almost always wisely -- on some of the most important issues that affect the lives of ordinary Americans.

Well, you should have heard Babs on billboards.

"I happen to like billboards," she said. "I like billboards a lot. I think billboards play an important function . . . Billboards are important."

And those are just 20 words out of nearly 1,000 Mikulski delivered on the Senate floor last June. It was an amazing speech. Never did I imagine that anyone could get so worked up in defense of billboards.

Most people are ambivalent about billboards. They've become fixtures in the American landscape; we've grown accustomed to them.

Usually, the only people who defend billboards are the ones who own them. The pop culture likes them, too. But you won't find many Americans running to defend the billboarding of their country.

Right here in Mikulski's native Baltimore, as a matter of fact, there has been a terrific fight, led by the mayor, against the illegal billboards that advertise cigarettes and booze in inner-city neighborhoods. For two years, community groups and City Council members have been fighting to remove about 1,300 such billboards, most of which are in poor, black neighborhoods. The signs violate zoning laws but, moreover, they are a blight on already-debilitated neighborhoods.

A year ago, a Baltimore Circuit Court judge ordered Boisclair Advertising Inc. to take down about 400 of its signs. The advertiser fought the ruling in the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. Two days ago, the court ruled in favor of the city.

A similar battle over billboards goes on at the national level.

One of the intents of the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 was removal of most billboards and other "visual pollution" from federal highways. But, as Dan Fesperman reported in The Sun recently, the billboard industry has lobbied hard to gradually dismantle the act. The lobby, Fesperman reported, has managed to add "exemptions and expensive compensation requirements, to the point where the Federal Highway Administration concluded that the act had become 'a sign-industry-dominated program.' "

For instance, the law says local governments can't remove billboards without reimbursing their owners.

There was an attempt to change that last summer. A bill introduced in the Senate -- and then rejected by it -- would have allowed local governments to amortize the value of certain billboards. That means they could have removed the billboards without reimbursing owners if the billboards had been in use long enough to have paid for themselves.

Mikulski -- who, according to The Sun, had received $9,500 in campaign contributions from the billboard industry in the three weeks before the Senate's June 11 vote -- was moved to speak against the provision. She went on and on about the wonders of billboards.

Forgive me that I can only excerpt her discourse:

"I know that billboards play an important role in political campaigns. When I first ran for the Baltimore City Council -- by the way, Mr. President, that was 20 years ago this week. Twenty years ago this week, this senator announced for her first political office. I challenged two political machines. I got out there and I knocked on 15,000 doors and I had a sweat equity campaign. I did not have big radio, big TV, but I sure had big billboards . . .

"Should they be on highways? I think they should . . .

"Let us not get into environmental issues calling them billboards. I have not found billboards to be polluters. They are not a hazardous substance; they are not a toxic substance. I am sure billboards are even recyclable. They do not make noise. They do not end up as a Superfund site; they do not give off emissions; they do not pollute the bay; they do not pollute Baltimore; they do not pollute Maryland. I do not know how they pollute."

Barbara Mikulski -- passionate about billboards.

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