Snyder vetoes school billboards bill, cites $100M risk

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

bilLansing — Gov. Rick Snyder on Thursday vetoed a bill that would have allowed highway billboards on public school property, saying it could cost Michigan $100 million a year in federal highway funding.

The legislation proposed “substantial revisions” to state billboard rules that would have conflicted with federal law, state law or a federal-state agreement on parameters to manage advertising on federally funded roadways, Snyder said in a veto letter to state legislators.

As a result, the bill “puts Michigan in jeopardy of losing millions of dollars in federal highway funding at a time when we must continue to aggressively invest in our infrastructure,” he wrote.

The legislation sought to define all public school property in Michigan as an “unzoned commercial or industrial area” in order to ensure that local school boards could vote to allow revenue generating highway billboards on their properties.

But as The Detroit News first reported this week, a Federal Highway Administration official recently told the Michigan Department of Transportation the agency was “unaware of anywhere in the country where education is considered by zoning authorities as a commercial or industrial activity.”

The agency would “have difficulty” interpreting a 1972 state-federal agreement “to consider public schools as places of commercial or industrial activity,” Division Director Russell Jorgenson wrote in the Dec. 21 letter.

Sponsoring Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, balked at that interpretation Wednesday and accused the state transportation department of seeking federal input as a scare tactic to kill the legislation.

The 33-page bill was designed to “clean up” recent state billboard rules, according to Casperson, who said he viewed the school property provision as a “win-win” because it could have clarified rules for billboard companies and helped districts generate needed revenue.

“We’re really trying to be crystal clear through legislation and not have departments that might have an agenda driving these issues,” Casperson told The News. “It makes it difficult for the small business people that are in the business to do this.”

Whitmore Lake Public Schools has two billboards along U.S. 23 in Washtenaw County, a 20-year deal that produces $50,000 annually for the district, an official with Adams Outdoor Advertising said during committee testimony. But similar plans in at least two other districts have not moved forward due to disputes over zoning rules.

Scenic Michigan, which led a campaign urging the governor to veto the bill, argued that school funding should be addressed through the budget process, not billboards. Local government groups also opposed the legislation, arguing it would pre-empt local zoning rules.

In his veto letter, Snyder said the proposal “goes too far” in limiting the state’s ability to effectively manage outdoor advertising. The issues he raised Thursday “represent only a portion” of his concerns with the legislation, the governor wrote.

“The risk of losing federal highway funding far outweighs the policy goals that SB 953 would otherwise achieve.”

Snyder also vetoed Thursday a bill that would have eliminated certain certification requirements to make it easier for individuals to sell wild morel mushrooms to restaurants, wholesalers or other food businesses.

The proposal, sponsored by Republican Rep Triston Cole of Mancelona, would have exempted morels from existing requirements for picking and selling wild mushrooms.

Snyder, in his veto letter, noted a significant increase in demand for morel mushrooms that has coincided with the growing popularity of local foods, but he noted that morel-related poisonings in Michigan have increased since 2000.

“It is important that wild mushrooms entering our food supply meet the same high safety standards as other products and ingredients,” he wrote.