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Lansing – Michigan could lose up to $100 million a year in federal funding if Gov. Rick Snyder signs legislation allowing highway billboards on school properties, according to the state Department of Transportation, a dire warning dismissed as a scare tactic by the bill’s sponsor.

A coalition of outside groups is urging Snyder to veto the billboard industry-backed proposal, which landed on the Republican governor’s desk last week after approval by the GOP-led Legislature.

The 33-page bill would “clean up” a recent overhaul of state billboard rules, according to Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. Among other things, it would allow website addresses to be added to existing billboards for certain roadside attractions.

But the proposal has come under fire for a section that would define school property as an “unzoned commercial or industrial area,” a move designed to ensure that local school boards can approve revenue-generating billboards on properties bordering highways that qualify for federal funding.

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

“The agreements provide a generous and much-needed revenue stream for the schools,” Richard Zecchino, Adams Outdoor vice president and general counsel, said in committee testimony. He noted the company also provides partnering schools with no-cost emergency messaging on its digital billboards.

The legislation would move Michigan out of compliance with requirements of the federal Highway Beautification Act and jeopardize 10 percent of the state’s federal highway funding, said transportation department spokesman Jeff Cranson. The state gets about $1 billion a year in federal highway funding, meaning $100 million could be at risk.

“It would be conflicting to state that a school building, athletic field or facility has a commercial or industrial purpose, when the primary function is education,” Cranson said in an email to The Detroit News. “The Federal Highway Administration has recently affirmed their interpretation of this in a letter” to the department.

In the Dec. 21 letter to MDOT Director Kirk Steudle, Division Administrator Russell Jorgenson said the federal agency is “unaware of anywhere in the country where education” is considered a commercial or industrial activity and “would have difficulty” considering them as such.

Casperson, who was copied by email, said Wednesday the letter was “the first we’ve heard of that.” He questioned MDOT’s motivation for requesting federal feedback.

“The only way the feds would have any say in this, in terms of being concerned about it, is if it was brought to their attention by MDOT,” he said.

Casperson told The News he “is not at all” concerned the legislation would put federal highway funding at risk and accused the state transportation department of trying to stoke fears to spur a veto.

“The first thing they do when they don’t want us legislating something, when they want their agenda driven, they use the federal government to scare us and say they’re coming with a vengeance,” Casperson said. “These billboards that we’re talking about are few and far between.”

The bill is also facing criticism from local government groups.

“This is just another piece of legislation that could pre-empt local control, and we’re seeing more and more of that,” said Jennifer Rigterink of the Michigan Municipal League. “It sets a precedent for more of that going forward, which is unfortunate.”

Scenic Michigan, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the state’s scenic resources, is leading a coalition that is urging Snyder to veto the bill.

Michigan has roughly 50,000 billboards, second only to Florida for the highest number in the country, said Executive Director Abby Dart.

“It is one our major industries,” Dart said. “We agree there is a place for billboards in this state, but not in scenic areas and certainly not on public school property.”

Supporters say the legislation has been misunderstood and mischaracterized by opponents.

“I think there are certain groups that are under the impression this all of a sudden opens up all school property to billboards,” said Bill Jackson of the Outdoor Advertising Association of Michigan. “The reality is school property is open to billboards now.”

The legislation simply clarifies the legality of billboards on school property that face federally funded highways, he said.

Backers say vetoing the bill because of school zoning concerns is unnecessary because it includes a provision specifying that any section “shall no longer apply” if it causes the federal government to withhold transportation funding.

“Never in the history of the Highway Beautification Act has (the federal government) ever dinged the state for 10 percent of highway funding,” Jackson said. “I think that’s a catchall that MDOT likes to use to try to beat us over the head in the industry on legislation that they don’t like.”

joosting@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3662

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