Using estimates by the North Carolina Department of Transportation and applying the updated values economists attribute to trees in ecosystem services alone, a handful of Republicans lawmakers handed out-of-state billboard companies a $5 billion gift when they pushed through a bill permitting these firms to clear-cut trees along public roadsides, even letting them sell the wood to cover the cost of harvesting public property.
It was repulsive to some other Republican lawmakers and drew criticism from newly-elected Republican governor, Pat McCrory. Now a new scientific measure of public opinion shows why, especially when it comes to Republican voters and women of all affiliations in the state.
By 218 to 1, each of these groups strongly believe it is “unfair for billboard owners to cut down trees in front of billboards on the state’s right of way without fully compensating the citizens of North Carolina for the use of this public property.” This is higher than the 76 to 1 ratio of those strongly opposed statewide.
Overall, Republicans and women in North Carolina oppose the give-away by 19 and 15 to 1 respectively, higher than the state average of 11 to 1 with only 4.6% undecided. Registered Independents and Democrats were only slightly less opposed at 14 and 7.6 to 1 respectively.
Independents and Democrats were strongly opposed by 79 and 63 to 1 respectively as were men by 42 to 1 in the statewide poll conducted by North Carolina-based NanoPhrades.
In an earlier poll by Public Policy Polling, also based in North Carolina, 80% of North Carolinians were opposed to permitting billboard companies to cut any additional trees at all, but the voters were ignored by lawmakers.
State lawmakers pushing the bill also ignored poll results showing that overwhelmingly North Carolinians believe local communities, not the state, should have authority over outdoor billboards on roadways in or passing through their communities. Voters also overwhelmingly opposed overriding local tree ordinances.
It is unclear if the give-away will be remedied or if it is, that NCDOT will have updated its formula which currently values trees only as pulp. Many lawmakers I know at every level, seem slow to grasp scientific public opinion polling, riveted instead on a spate of less generalizable but angry voice mail or email messages.
Of course, lawmakers may be responding to lobbying or campaign contributions the outdoor billboard industry uses to get its way past voter sentiment. Of course, I know far too many who are much more honorable than that.
The explanation for being so out of synch with citizens may be as simple as not reading bills and relying too much on what others say. Or it be relying far to much on their own opinions and self-interests or, perhaps, the powerful condition of “reciprocity” upon which lobbyists rely so much to exploit conflicts-of-interest.
Dr. Dan Ariely, a Durham, North Carolina-based behavioral economist and researcher discusses this type of “reciprocity” in his new book, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, explaining its power to influence irrational and unethical behaviors unless there is reputational-risk.
Even at this latest $4-to-5 billion dollar give-away, which should be prohibited by the interpretation many give to the state constitution, trees are only symbolic of the preferential treatment given billboards as a special interest.
Even though studies now show that fewer than .02% of consumers rely on billboards for purchasing decisions, and courts have long-held that their only value as property is parasitic on tax-payer constructed and maintains roadways, these businesses pay almost nothing in fees and local property taxes. They also contribute nothing to the cost of the roadways upon which they leech.
In the opinion of economists, these nearly obsolete devices are not worth sacrificing the much greater value placed on roadside vegetation in terms of such benefits as climate control, water and air purification and soil retention alone. We should add to that the central role that forested roadsides and view-sheds contribute to visitor-centric economic and cultural development as well as the appeal to relocating executives and businesses
If we are going to tolerate them at all, we should assess them as we do similar societal liabilities such as tobacco and alcohol. Under full-cost accounting, outdoor billboards should not only be assessed to offset the destruction and blight they create but these companies should also be required to shoulder the full share if not all of the cost of constructing and maintaining public roadways.