• Judge Grants Restraining Order Against Cincinnati Billboard Tax

    CINCINNATI (July 30) — A judge issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) to block Cincinnati’s targeted billboard tax and higher fees.

    The next step is a hearing for injunctive relief in early September.

    Norton Outdoor Advertising and Lamar Advertising Company are challenging the new tax and fees on constitutional grounds.  Court of Common Pleas Judge Curt C. Hartman granted their request for a restraining order; the judge also ordered expedited discovery.

    Cincinnati’s City Council enacted the billboard tax and higher fees June 27 — in emergency session — to help close a budget gap.  The city’s fiscal year began July 1.

    The tax rate is 7 percent or a calculation of billboard square footage, whichever is greatest.

    “Government may not tax protected activity solely to raise revenue or saddle a small group of speakers with unique financial burdens because such actions risk chilling the freedom of expression,” said Norton’s pleading filed July 30.

    Lamar’s brief, filed July 27, said: “The Outdoor Advertising Sign Excise Tax unconstitutionally taxes speech purely to raise revenue for the general funds and imposes an unlawful financial burden on the enjoyment of a fundamental right, the freedom of speech.”

    Lamar is represented by Guy Taft of Strauss Troy (Cincinnati).  Norton is represented by Michael Galasso and Esther Norton of Robbins, Kelly, Patterson & Tucker (Cincinnati).

    Cincinnati’s billboard tax prohibits explanation of the tax:  “No advertising host shall state in any manner, whether directly or indirectly, that the tax or any part thereof will be assumed or absorbed by an advertiser, or that it will be added to the rent or other charge.”

    This amounts to a gag order, said Norton and Lamar in their legal pleadings arguing that the targeted tax impedes free speech.

    Insider’s take:  Where to start on this one.  A city sneaks a new tax targeting just two firms into last minute budget deliberations with no notice and little chance for comment and review.  Then the city tries to prohibit those two firms from telling customers ad rates are being increased to pay for the tax?   Here’s hoping the Courts throw out the billboard tax.  Otherwise other cash-strapped cities may imitate Cincinnati’s back-alley tactics.


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