By John Celock
Kansas lawmakers passed a plan Monday that could allow residents to have as many political lawn signs as they want.
A successful amendment to bill dealing with social media use in campaigns would prevent local governments from establishing limits on how many political lawn signs can be placed on private property during the 30 days leading up to an election. Opponents though raised objections saying that concerns over the use of public rights of way for lawn sign placement could cause issues, while supporters say the issue is one of freedom of speech.
“I pay a lot in property taxes and if I want to show my neighbors who I support I should,” Sen. Rob Olson (R-Olathe), the amendment’s sponsor said in the debate.
Sen. Marci Francisco (D-Lawrence) raised concerns over the use of public rights of way on private property for lawn signs. She said she could see a campaign placing unlimited signs on a public right of way for her opponent or a candidate not supported by a homeowner and making it seem that the homeowner is backing that candidate.
Francisco questioned why Olson’s amendment related to a public right of way “adjacent” to private property rather than one on private property. Olson said that in drafting the amendment with legislative attorneys the “adjacent” language covered the rights of way. Much of the debate centered on the strip of grass between a curb and a sidewalk in front of a home. Francisco said that this property is not controlled by a person in particular and could be subjected to a lawn sign blitz.
“Again if we are talking about the unpaved right of way since no one owns that it would be possible for every candidate to come along and it would be a limit of how many signs you can afford,” Francisco said.
Francisco cited last year’s gubernatorial campaign, noting that one day she came home to find a variety of signs for a statewide candidate she did not support on a public right of way adjacent to her Lawrence home. She said she took the signs down so it did not appear she was endorsing that candidate. Francisco noted the signs were placed there because the area was on the way to the University of Kansas football stadium before a game.
Sen. Tom Holland (D-Baldwin City) raised similar concerns noting that his house does not have a sidewalk and the right of way blends into his front yard.
“My concern is I have a one acre front yard ,and the county cuts the right of way ,but it looks like a big front yard. There is no sidewalk. There could be mischief,” Holland said. “It would look like I am supporting my opponent”
Supporters said that the bill would clear up local laws that limit lawn signs. Sen. Greg Smith (R-Overland Park) noted that his community’s local law allows for a property owner to place up to three signs on private property. He said that during last year’s election for six statewide offices, along with county and state House seats, Overland Park residents could not indicate their support for every candidates they would want to support.
“Speaking from experience in my Senate district. One of the cities in my Senate district allows a property to only have three signs,” Smith said. “There were many more than three candidates on the ballot. It was impossible for someone to put up a sign for every candidate they wanted to.”
Francisco said she agrees with allowing for more signs, noting that in this year’s municipal and school elections in Lawrence, voters can vote for up to three city commission and three school board candidates and might want to show support for all six on their lawns.
Other supporters indicated that the additional lawn signs would level the playing field for challengers, noting that incumbents already receive an added bonus with publicity that lawn signs can mute.
With the debate over the right of way issues, Senate Ethics and Elections Committee Chairman Mitch Holmes (R-St. John) indicated that he would be willing to explore the lawn sign issue in his committee next year if it did not become law this year. League of Kansas Municipalities Executive Director Erik Sartorius said on Twitter that he wanted to see the rights of way issue explored, noting that signs in this area could become traffic hazards in intersections.
While the Senate passed the amendment as part of the larger bill, it is unclear if the House of Representatives, which passed the social media bill unanimously, would go along with the lawn signs or other amendments. The bill could head into a conference committee, which could remove the lawn sign provision. The social media bill would allow campaign announcements on Twitter to not contain a “paid for by” disclaimer, along with covering rules for social media announcements of campaign events that might be seen by a lobbyist.
Olson stressed that the lawn sign provisions are needed to address the rights of property owners statewide.
“Certain cities like to fine people,” he said. “If someone wants to say who they are supporting, it’s their property and they are paying taxes and the city can fine them and cause them harm. This is a fairness amendment.”