If the 2012 session of the Missouri legislature had a yearbook, Sen. Bill Stouffer, R-Napton, would appear as "most creative lawmaker."
For several years, Mr. Stouffer has been doing the bidding of the billboard industry, trying to undo changes passed by the legislature in 2002 that made thousands of Missouri billboards noncomforming. In effect, the 2002 law made the billboards illegal, but they were allowed to stay until they collapsed or otherwise ceased to exist.
Every year since then, the billboard industry has been seeking not only to make those older billboards legal again, but also to allow them to be replaced by high-tech digital billboards and to get the taxpayers to foot the bill.
Sounds pretty unreasonable, right?
Well, it almost worked last year when Mr. Stouffer decided to bypass the normal bill-making process. He sneaked his proposal into a transportation bill in conference committee in the session's dying hours, hoping nobody was paying attention.
It didn't work. Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed the bill.
This year, to his credit, Mr. Stouffer ran the bill through committee. It passed and is awaiting Senate debate. The bill is better than last year's version because it no longer has a silly provision that would have allowed the billboard industry to bypass local ordinances.
It's still a bad bill. Imagine if billboards were, say, undocumented workers, found to have been in the state illegally. And let's say the Republican-dominated legislature wanted to give them amnesty and a few bucks so that they could find a place to live.
Think that would happen?
Of course not, and it shouldn't happen for billboards either.
But back to Mr. Stouffer's creativity. The Saline County Republican also has a bill that would create a new crime of "distracted driving."
This is interesting because late last year, when the federal National Transportation Safety Board issued a call for a national ban on texting and driving, Mr. Stouffer called the move federal overreach. He compared texting and driving to changing the music on the car stereo.
Yet now he has a bill that would make it a state crime for a driver to engage in "any other activity which causes the operator to be distracted from the primary mission of driving such motor vehicle."
Perhaps Mr. Stouffer is trying to be ironic.
The primary argument against allowing a proliferation of digital billboards to dot Missouri's beautiful landscape — other than the fact that they scar the state's natural beauty — is that they are dangerously distracting.
The whole point of the flashing digital billboard is to get the driver to take his eyes off the road and look at the shiny object.
So if both of Mr. Stouffer's laws would pass (and neither should), one law would enrich an element of the business community to the detriment of drivers who would be more likely to be distracted. It's the kind of idea that could be embraced only by city officials in Charlack, a town known in St. Louis for its revenue-enhancing speed trap. Think of the distracted-driving tickets that town could issue.
Missouri lawmakers should keep their eyes on the road. Say no to both bad bills.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.