An after-midnight push to allow dozens of new electronic billboards along freeways in downtown Los Angeles and in Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties was shot down Tuesday in the state Senate.
The bill, with some provisions tailored for a company headed by billionaire Philip Anschutz, would have created an exemption to the state ban on new freeway billboards for certain projects, including a downtown entertainment district being built by Anschutz, who owns the adjacent Staples Center. Backers vowed to bring the measure back next year.
The legislation was an attempt to circumvent the Senate Transportation Committee, which has rejected previous requests for exemptions, critics said.
“This is worse than earmarks. Earmarks are at least legal,” said Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), the committee chairman. “These billboards . . . are illegal.”
The bill would have allowed electronic billboards operated in conjunction with convention centers and theaters “located within, or immediately adjacent to, the Los Angeles Sports and Entertainment District [e.g. Staples Center],” according to a report to the Senate by a legislative analyst.
Across the street from Staples, Anschutz’s company AEG is developing the $2.5-billion L.A. Live, which includes the Nokia Theatre and will feature broadcast TV studios, movie theaters, restaurants and a luxury hotel.
Last week, the Los Angeles City Council voted to sell signage rights for the L.A. Convention Center to AEG paving the way for potentially dozens of billboards on city property at the interchange of the 10 and 110 freeways.
But billboards proposed in the council agreement require state exemptions such as those in the failed bill if they are to be built close to freeways, according to Michael Roth, an AEG spokesman.
Those signs would provide advertising for events at the development’s venues, as well as the convention center, and would bring money into the city’s coffers.
“It means five to 10 million dollars in revenue for the city of Los Angeles,” said Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles), who brought the L.A. Live provision to the Senate.
The legislation by Assemblyman Bill Emmerson (R-Redlands) would also have provided an exemption allowing digital signs in Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, Huntington Beach and Lennox, an unincorporated area near Los Angeles International Airport. AEG is not involved in any of those projects.
In a vote after midnight on trailer bills attached to the budget, the Senate deadlocked 17 to 17 on Emmerson’s legislation.
“None of us were in the mood for extraneous special interest crap thrown at us in the wee hours of the morning,” said Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), explaining her vote against the bill.
Firms and executives affiliated with Anschutz have given $2.7 million to political committees in California in the last five years, including $583,000 to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s campaign accounts.
The bill’s original intent was to improve the state’s whistle-blower law, but all of the language was gutted Tuesday and replaced with the billboard proposals.
Opponents of the plan to put billboards on the L.A. Convention Center were angered to find out about the Emmerson bill after the vote.
“It’s outrageous,” said Dennis Hathaway of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight. “These issues are supposed to have transparency and public input. They are trying to keep everything below the radar. It’s not the way democracy is supposed to work.”
The Emmerson bill was one of several last-minute measures unrelated to the budget that failed to win approval, including legislation to provide incentives for film companies to stay in California, to relax air quality standards for new power plants in Vernon and to help pave the way for construction of a power plant in Riverside County.
Times staff writer Jordan Rau contributed to this report