Faced with intense lobbying, Gov. William Donald Schaefer is trying to decide whether to sign a bill that would let Baltimore officials ban liquor billboards throughout the city.
Community groups and city lawmakers say the law is necessary to get rid of liquor ads that they say have blanketed poor neighborhoods, while the advertising and liquor industry argue that a ban would violate free speech and lead to layoffs.
Mr. Schaefer has received dozens of letters and calls from both sides, one of the heaviest responses to any bill that awaits the governor's signature. But he has yet to reach a decision whether to sign or veto the measure, Page W. Boinest, the governor's press secretary, said late last week.
"It's the kind of thing where he would wait and make his decision after everyone's had their say," Ms. Boinest said. On May 27, the bill will either be signed by Mr. Schaefer or be among his veto messages, she said.
The bill passed the House 75-33 and the Senate 43-0.
The measure would let the mayor and City Council ban liquor ads on billboards and walls in the city except for Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Pimlico Race Course and Memorial Stadium. Buses and cabs also would be excluded because they travel outside the city.
"Let's say I'm hopeful that he's going to sign it," said Sen. Ralph Hughes, a Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the measure. "I'm going to try and set up a meeting with him."
The senator, along with other Baltimore lawmakers and residents, said there is a proliferation of liquor billboards in city neighborhoods. "They're targeting poor and black neighborhoods. There's no question," said Mr. Hughes.
"I can't go a block without seeing the billboards and the liquor advertisements," said Gloria Gross, a member of City Wide Liquor Coalition, a collection of 80 community, religious and church groups that pressed for the ban. "It seems to be very bad."
But Fred M. Lauer, director of governmental affairs for Penn Advertising of Baltimore, said the company's liquor ads are not targeted in poor areas but distributed throughout the city.
The company has 960 billboards, about 20 percent of which are liquor billboards. Should the city enact the law, Mr. Lauer said, the firm would be forced to cut its 53-member work force by 20 percent. There would be another $1 million loss to local property owners, who own the land where the billboards are located, he said.
"We just don't see why they're singling out one industry," said Craig Button, president of the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association, a 1,200-member organization of liquor stores and taverns. "We just don't think it's fair."
For the past two weeks letters have descended on the governor's office, many from employees of Penn Advertising fearing for their jobs and urging Mr. Schaefer to veto the measure.
Others have come from students who say the law is needed. "Kids see these billboards, they think that [drinking] is cool and they do it," said one letter signed "Sheva."
While opponents raise First Amendment concerns, Maryland Assistant Attorney General Kathryn M. Rowe said the bill is constitutional, noting that three federal circuit court decisions have upheld regulation of alcoholic beverage advertising.
"They do impose a lower standard to commercial advertising than to other forms of speech," she said.
Officials at the Outdoor Advertising Association of America in Washington said they know of no other instance of a state giving a municipality power to ban liquor advertising. At least one state, South Carolina, allows advertisements for beer and wine but not distilled spirits.
Should Mr. Schaefer sign the measure, City Councilwoman Sheila Dixon says she will immediately introduce a measure calling for the liquor advertising ban.
Ms. Dixon said Friday she has 10 co-sponsors on the 18-member council, the exact number needed for approval.
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke also supports the measure, she said.