Cincinnati hoped to add $700,000 to its 2019 budget by placing a tax on billboards. But on Monday, July 30, Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Curt Hartman wrote a stern rebuke to the plan. He wrote, “… the constant providing of additional (and ever-increasing) dollars to public officials for pet projects or even for the funding of basic governmental services has never been found to be a compelling or significant government interest. The need to add to the fisc cannot be the end-all-be-all to justify any imposition of a tax or other financial burden on the exercise of First Amendment rights…”
The Cincinnati Enquirer published an online article https://www.cincinnati.com/story/news/politics/2018/07/30/lawsuit-filed-over-citys-new-billboard-tax/860302002/ that reported, “On Friday, Norton Outdoor Advertising sued the city alleging seven counts, including violations of the First and the Fourteenth Amendments. Another suit, filed by Lamar Advertising, makes similar claims.
“Specifically, the billboard tax:
- Increases the fee to obtain outdoor advertising from $70 to $280.
- Requires a “certificate of compliance” which costs $115.44.
- Billboards will now need annual permits, instead of every other year. That cost, spread over several fees, is an increase of 1,600 percent.
“The court finds that a substantial showing has been made that (the tax) is a direct tax on the means of engaging in speech,” Hartman wrote. “The tax is effectively no different than a tax specifically targeted to being imposed on newsprint or a printing press used to produce newspapers. As such, the court finds a sufficient First Amendment interest has been implicated and likely violated.”