Drivers in Bentonville are encountering a billboard that includes two ads depicting and promoting Governor Sarah Sanders and Senator Bart Hester. The billboards read, “Thank You for Supporting Arkansas Small Business!” and indicate they are paid for by the Arkansas Outdoor Advertising Association (AOAA).

The AOAA has a history of influencing (occasionally unconstitutional) legislation in its favor. In 2015 Senator Hester led the way on Act 573, which provided tax exemptions and a unique tax valuation approach for outdoor signage owners. In short, the act restricted the assessment methods counties could use to tax “off-premises advertising signs.” 

In 2018 a lawsuit was filed alleging the law was unconstitutional for creating an inequitable system of property taxation. The law was ruled unconstitutional in 2020 because the legislature did not pass the law by 3/4ths vote as required by the Arkansas Constitution. 

The Arkansas Times previously reported that when the law was passed in 2015, Benton County tax records indicated that Hester owned billboard property. The AOAA also argued that the lawsuit should be dismissed.

To recap—Bart Hester passed an unconstitutional tax break that [allegedly] benefited himself and the billboard lobby back in 2015. Now, he’s being featured on a billboard paid for by the billboard lobby. The Governor has a matching billboard in the same spot in Bentonville.

The AOAA’s registered agent is Tom Gibbens and its director is Whit Weeks. Both Gibbens and Weeks are executive officers at Lamar advertising, the company that owns the billboard and controls a substantial percentage of the billboard market.

The main takeaway from all these entanglements is a series of more questions. Why does Lamar Advertising want to buddy up to Hester right now? With fiscal session looming, is there any back scratching from Hester to come? What about the free ad they’re providing for the Governor? Same question there. Those two aren’t the only ones who the AOAA have promoted. Nearly identical signs have been seen supporting Senator David Wallace last month in his district.

Arkansans deserve transparency from elected officials. Part of transparency involves campaign finance. Where and how politicians receive donations matters, because it helps us understand who is really in control. As more and more Arkansans recognize government transparency as a key issue, it’s important to keep this facet of the issue in view, especially as legislators play fast-and-loose with ethical and legal boundaries.