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    A Times Editorial

    Billboards or constituents?

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 5, 2001

    The billboard lobby may lack for friends in Florida's city halls and courthouses and in the courtrooms where sign-removal ordinances are put to the test. But in politics, as in war, it's the last battle that counts, and the cartel is about to win that one in the hospitable halls of the Legislature.

    Its legislation moved a key step closer to passage Wednesday as a second House committee approved it -- by a shocking 12-1 margin -- despite poor progress toward a compromise tolerable to all local governments or toward satisfactory language, as promised, to exempt cities that have already settled their billboard disputes.

    Clearwater, Pinellas County, Orlando and other blight-fighting communities are having to deal at a gross disadvantage. If they don't come to some terms, they are being told, the Legislature will compel them to pay full price for any billboard, however old, that they make the companies take down.

    Under the latest proposal, communities could target billboards in certain neighborhoods, but only in trade for new locations elsewhere. Disputes would go to non-binding arbitration, meaning that even if a local government won the arbitration, it might still have to pay to remove the sign. There's not even a pretense of fairness in that.

    The billboard lobby's power play is embedded in a comprehensive transportation bill that everyone presumes Gov. Jeb Bush wouldn't want to veto. It doesn't belong there, and the bill would deserve a veto on that account.

    Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, has scheduled the bill for a vote by his Senate Transportation Committee today. Its members can vote for their constituents, or they can vote for the billboard lobby. They can't vote for both.

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