Signs of the Times

Posted April 29, 2011, at 7:15 p.m.
Last modified May 09, 2011, at 11:46 a.m.

In their zeal to craft policies to boost Maine business, some legislators risk creating a chaotic, unpredictable economic environment, not the stable one that businesses seek.

The proposal by Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, to end Maine’s 32-year-old ban on highway billboards, is a chaos risk — pardon the pun — writ large.

The senator is often refreshing in his unvarnished advocacy for conservative fixes to vexing problems. But on this issue, he seems to be a downfield blocker with no running back behind him. There has been no cry from businesses asking for bigger signs on highways. The small, rectangular blue directional signs that the state issues work just fine, most business operators say. And the current system of small blue signs levels the playing field; no longer will competing restaurants or hotels have to get into a sort of arms race with bigger and bigger signs.

Furthermore, allowing billboards is a slap in the face to local control. Many municipalities, especially those along the coast in high tourist-traffic areas, have labored to create their own sign ordinances that reflect local values. Allowing billboards on state roads would conflict with local rules.

Sen. Thomas argues that billboards will allow businesses to make money they otherwise are not making, thereby creating jobs. This logic reflects a misunderstanding of 21st century consumer economics. If travelers need a place to stay the night, they won’t sleep in their car if there is not a giant billboard directing them to a hotel. They are more likely to use their smartphone or GPS to find a hotel for the night; the argument can be made that instead of bringing back billboards, the state should improve cell phone reception and extend broadband service.

Most importantly, the rollback proposal threatens to taint what is working in Maine. The state has a distinct brand in the national view, one defined by what it is not — Anyplace, U.S.A. The Maine brand means that other Americans see the state as a safe place, with historic and defined downtowns and plenty of natural beauty. Why reverse that?

A disturbing theme has emerged in some proposals from the governor and Republican legislators. It’s as if they believe Maine will prosper if an imagined business wish list were implemented as policy. That list does not represent subtle, common-sense tweaks. Instead, it resembles a combine working its way through a field of wheat, sending the rules and values Mainers have collectively settled on over the years into the wind with the chaff.

Republican leaders ought to pay attention to what legitimate, established business leaders say they need, not the partisan, grudge-inspired rants of a few. Maine’s businesses need help, but it’s with energy and health care costs, access to capital and better transportation, not bigger signs.

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