JEFFERSON CITY - When Tom Dawson took ownership of his family's three-story white farmhouse just off from I-70, five billboards already stood on the property. That didn't bother him a bit -- on the contrary, those signs have come in very handy over the years.
"The rent I get off those signs pretty much pays my property tax," Dawson said of the signs drivers see near Kingdom City. "That's about $3,000 a year that I'd have to come up with if it weren't for those signs."
But some Missourians now are fighting to prohibit the construction of new billboards along state and federal highways with Proposition A on the Nov. 7 ballot. For Dawson and many other Missouri farmers, Proposition A raises serious concerns.
Since the current law prohibits construction of billboards on public property, billboard companies must rent space for their signs from people whose private property borders the highway. Often, these landowners are farmers. If Proposition A passes, farmers will no longer be able to rent their land to the billboard companies.
"Bottom line, I think the message is that there is a property rights issue here," said Estil Fretwell, chief spokesman for the Missouri Farm Bureau. The Farm Bureau does not take a formal position for or against Proposition A, but maintains "strong concerns" about it.
The problem for many farmers is that they just don't know what Proposition A would mean for them.
Opponents of Proposition A, led by Citizens Against Tax Waste, a group representing the billboard industry, says that the fine print of the proposal requires the removal of almost 3,500 existing signs, at a cost of more than $500 million to taxpayers. Supporters of Proposition A, led by Save Our Scenery, categorically deny that charge.
That position is supported by a number of state authorities -- the state auditor, the Transportation Department, and the attorney general have all issued statements that the ballot initiative does not require the removal of any signs.
Nevertheless, the official ballot description for the proposal cites the fiscal impact to government as "unknown" -- although the "unknown" conclusion was reached because of uncertainty about the loss of billboard permit fees.
The cost debate leaves farmer Dawson confused.
"I don't really know what it entails -- I haven't studied it. The sign people of course want us to vote against it," Dawson said. Fretwell said that the Farm Bureau's "strong concerns" are based on information provided by Citizens Against Tax Waste.
Bill May, Executive Director of the Missouri Outdoor Advertising Association and Chairman of Citizens Against Tax Waste, said the passage of Proposition A would adversely affect thousands of farmers. "The Outdoor Advertising Association pays Missouri farmers in excess of $10 million a year," May said.
But supporters of the proposition say this is pure fabrication: No farmers will lose income because no signs are going to be torn down.
However, even assuming that no signs will be torn down, the issue of property rights remains. While Proposition A is intended to beautify the highway, some argue that is not enough justification to infringe on the rights of landowners. "Maybe they are ugly, I don't know," said Dawson with a chuckle. "But when I see them I see money. And it is my land they're setting on."
The Save Our Scenery campaign agrees that Proposition A would infringe on farmers' property rights. But the campaign manager, Julius Zomper, points out that the percentage of farmers actually affected by the proposition would be very small.
That's small consolation for farmers like Dawson. While he has no plans to build more signs on his property and is happy with the amount of rent he gets every year, he says he'll vote against Proposition A. "These are my property rights," he said. "You can build anything else on your land, so I don't understand why this is any different."