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Lisa Gray alerts us to the latest bright idea from Austin.

Like all of Texas’ big cities, we have regulations that ban digital billboards – both because they’re painfully ugly and because they’re designed to take drivers’ eyes off the road.

But now our freedom from those distracting eyesores is in danger. A pair of bills in the Texas Legislature would allow digital billboards to weasel their way into those cities.

And the sneak attack is disguised, of all things, as a safety measure.

The bills look harmless at first: Both House Bill 1765 and Senate Bill 971 describe an “emergency public safety messaging network” that would notify drivers of evacuation plans, Amber alerts and such – never mind that the Texas Department of Transportation already has a network of less-distracting emergency signs to do just that. Or that notice-worthy emergencies exist only about 1 percent of the time.

What would those digital billboards display during the other 99 percent?

“Commercial digital messages,” the legislation explains, deep on page 4. And the private contractor would pocket 95 percent of the resulting ad revenue, leaving the state and city to split the crumbs.

Under the bill, the approval of just one executive – an area’s “emergency management director,” usually either a city mayor or county judge – would be all that’s needed to make an end run around local sign codes and building ordinances, state billboard law and even the Lady Bird Johnson Highway Beautification Act.

Here’s HB1765 and SB971. The good news is that so far neither of these bills has come up for a vote in committee. The bad news is that the Senate has already shown that it’s happy to meddle in the affairs of cities, so there’s no reason why they couldn’t pass. These bills seem like silly little attempts to generate a few pennies for the state rather than perform a necessary or useful function. Like Lisa, I hope they go nowhere, but as always it’s never a bad idea to let your elected officials know how you feel about these things.

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