A bid to put a moratorium on new highway billboards, in part because of anger over anti-trucker ads sponsored by trial lawyers, was killed Tuesday in the House Transportation Committee.

The vote to shelve the measure passed 14-3 amid heavy opposition from Lamar Advertising Co., an international firm based in Baton Rouge with an annual payroll of $35 million.

A similar measure — Senate Bill 211 — is pending in the state Senate, but Tuesday's lopsided vote may end the debate for 2019.

The measure was pushed by the trucking industry, which is represented by the Louisiana Motor Transport Association.

"I am simply asking you to put a moratorium on billboards," Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro, sponsor of the resolution told the committee. "We have 7,000 of them."

McFarland said the trucking business employs 90,000 people in Louisiana and "has been hit harder than any other industry by the billboard industry."

Opponents called the proposal a misguided attempt to curb anti-trucker ads by trial attorneys and one that would harm restaurants, retail firms, local jewelers, hospitals and churches.

"This bill as introduced would have made it virtually impossible for them to use our services as they traditionally have," said Sean Reilly, CEO of Lamar and a former state House member himself.

Reilly said attorneys account for 17 percent of Lamar's ads.

"We all know what this is about," he said. "We all know this is about the truckers versus the trial attorneys.

"I think they have a right to do what they do. 

"The New Orleans Saints have an official trial attorney of the New Orleans Saints. I don't see these guys going after Drew Brees."

The issue sparked a jammed committee room and forced legislative officials to open a second committee room so spectators could watch the hearing remotely.

Rep. Terry Landry, D-Lafayette, chairman of the committee, said opponents of the resolution filled out 75 cards and backers filed 45 cards in support, an unusually heavy turnout for any issue.

McFarland, without mentioning trial attorneys, said a cap on highway displays is needed because of "repetitive messages" motorists see on highways, which he said damage the state.

Josh McAllister, a member of the board of the Louisiana Loggers Association, said insurance rates for truckers have risen 100 percent in the past four years. "We are not against the billboard industry, we are against the message being put out," McAllister said.

"They (motorists) are looking at a billboard that says 'Sue this guy' whether you are guilty or not," he said.

Mamye Hall, a Realtor from Baton Rouge, said her family has had a contract with Lamar for 30 years to place a McDonald's billboard on her family's property.

Hall said revenue from those rights finances her family's property taxes, and she urged the committee to reject McFarland's resolution.

Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, a member of the committee, disputed comments by backers of the resolution that billboards represent a major distraction for truckers and other motorists.

Marcelle said the key distraction among drivers is cellphones.

The lawmaker called Lamar a "homegrown" business that employs about 500 workers in Louisiana.

"This is about targeting attorneys," Marcelle said of the resolution. "I think it is the wrong mechanism to get there."

Mark Falzone, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Scenic America, noted that four other states ban highway displays.

"Billboards are designed to distract drivers," Falzone told the panel. "Otherwise, they are not doing their job."

State Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Shawn Wilson said while driver distraction is a safety issue, pinpointing exactly what distracts drivers "is when you get into a very gray area."

McFarland's legislation is House Concurrent Resolution 4. 

Acadiana Business Today: Push to ban new Louisiana highway billboards crushed in House committee; Shopping center to open along I-49 in Carencro later this year

The Ville Platte City Council will vote next month on whether or not to approve Universal Communications to offer internet service in the city.


Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.