Utah Senate kills controversial billboard bill

Opponents said SB144 would have given too much power to billboard companies.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Billboards are stacked along the 600 South offramp from I-15 in Salt Lake City in this March 13, 2018, file photo. The Utah Senate killed a bill Monday that would have blocked local governments from placing restrictions on billboards. Opponents said the bill gave too much power to billboard companies.

Without debate, the Utah Senate spiked a bill on Monday that sought to block local governments from enacting restrictions on billboards.

Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, brought SB144 to push back against what he and outdoor advertisers said were abuses by municipalities when regulating billboards. Among the tactics he sought to curb included paying landowners to not renew leases for billboard companies or giving preferential treatment to construction projects unrelated to the billboards.

“These practices are unethical, and this bill is to stop this from occurring,” Hinkins said during a committee hearing last week.

The measure was opposed by local leaders, who long have said they are frustrated by attempts by the industry to override local regulations by running to the Legislature, many of whose members enjoy generous contributions from sign companies.

A recent Salt Lake Tribune analysis of campaign contributions found that Reagan Outdoor Advertising, one of the largest billboard businesses in the state, ranked as the No. 6 individual donor to state legislators last year. The company gave a combined total of $49,741 to 41 separate elected officials.

The company also donated more than $40,000 to Gov. Spencer Cox.

But Hinkins said restrictions on billboards and other signs were hurting small businesses, especially in rural areas of the state.

“It’s nothing but sagebrush and flat out there in a lot of cases, but I couldn’t put up a sign to advertise my business. These businesses are struggling as people go on the internet and buy things, so our brick-and-mortar businesses aren’t getting the chance. The only way we can let people know we’re around is advertising,” he said.

Opponents said Hinkins’ bill gave too much power to billboard companies, especially by prohibiting local governments from requiring a permit to upgrade a billboard to a digital sign.

On Monday, Hinkins indicated there were some changes he wanted to make to the legislation, but asked his fellow Senators to move the bill forward first because of the dwindling number of days remaining in the 2021 session. Instead of advancing the bill, the Senate voted it down 13-11. There were 5 senators who did not vote.

There are two more billboard-related bills still alive in the 2020 session. SB61, sponsored by Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, makes it easier for billboard owners to convert existing signs to digital regardless of local regulations. SB120 from Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, puts more restrictions on where billboards can be placed as well as creates a mechanism for voiding some agreements for placing outdoor advertising. Sandall’s bill is awaiting debate on the Senate floor while Kitchen’s proposal has not had a committee hearing.