More than 120 public notice bills have been introduced in at least 37 different states through the first week of March, raising varying levels of concern among newspaper publishers and state press associations around the country. The only states where the danger signs are flashing red, however, appear to be Wisconsin and Missouri.
Newspapers in Wisconsin face two separate challenges. The immediate threat is Assembly Bill 70 and Senate Bill 42, companion bills that would authorize city councils and other local government boards to publish meeting proceedings on their own websites. The legislation has 41 co-sponsors, including six Democrats. AB70 is scheduled for a hearing today and defeating it promises to be an uphill battle for the Wisconsin Newspaper Association because four of the five Republicans on the nine-member committee are co-sponsors. WNA hopes to maintain the support of the Democrats on the committee and to pick up at least one Republican member to defeat the bill, according to Executive Director Beth Bennett.
Even if the companion bills are defeated, meeting proceedings could still be moved from newspapers to government websites, along with dozens of other Class 1 Notices, in the budget proposal submitted last month by Gov. Scott Walker. Class 1 Notices require a single insertion and provide information about government — like budgets, ordinances and meeting minutes — unrelated to citizen rights or actions. The budget measure targeting these notices was introduced as part of a larger effort to reduce government printing costs by moving certain printed material to government websites. The transition from print to web had been recommended by a state commission. To the extent the recommendation pertains to public notices, it directly contradicts the findings of last year’s legislative study committee that unanimously supported the continued publication of public notices in newspapers.
The Walker administration recently issued a fiscal note estimating the state would realize annual savings of $24,000 by eliminating the Class 1 Notices. WNA submitted a report last year to the study committee pegging the cost of government notices that ran in 70 percent of the newspapers in the state in 2015 at $1.38 million.
The challenge in Missouri may not be as steep in political terms as the one in Wisconsin, but the scope of the potential loss to newspapers in the state is significantly larger. Senate Bill 47 would allow government officials to publish all of their notices on a “website established and maintained by the secretary of state in lieu of publication in a newspaper.” And companion bills in the House and Senate would move all foreclosure notices in the state to websites operated by the law firms that serve as trustees in the foreclosure process. (Missouri allows non-judicial foreclosures.)
Committee hearings were held on all three bills in the last three weeks. SB47 was the first to receive a hearing, and the fact that three weeks have passed without a vote is a positive sign according to Mark Maassen, executive director of the Missouri Press Association. Missouri’s legislative research committee issued a fiscal note prior to the hearing estimating that by charging $10 per notice the Secretary of State’s public notice website would generate as much as $955,000 in additional annual revenue for the state. The estimate assumed two full-time equivalents would be required to post 100-300 notices per day on the site.
The foreclosure measures may pose a tougher challenge, says Maassen, who described the hearings on both bills as “tough.” Maassen recounted a particularly squeamish moment in last week’s hearing on the House bill, when a lawyer from one of the two large firms pushing the legislation made a clever, if fatuous, point about obsolescence by holding up, in order, a Sears catalog, an encyclopedia, a phone book, a record album and a particularly thin recent edition of The Kansas City Star. The companion bills would eliminate a provision in current Missouri law forbidding foreclosure lawyers from publishing newspapers for the purpose of running their own notices. They would also allow law firms to charge the same rates for notices as the newspapers currently authorized to publish them, making it clear that the legislation has nothing to do with saving money.
In terms of sheer numbers, publishers in Illinois have the most to contend with. The Illinois Press Association is now tracking 19 different public notice bills, only two of which they support. Most unique among those bills are several that would authorize government bodies and school districts to exempt themselves from “unfunded mandates,” including newspaper notice requirements.
Illinois is also facing a bill that would allow courts to waive the newspaper notice requirement for name-change applications if they find good cause to do so. Evidence the petitioner or another person affected by the change have “been the victim of stalking or assaultive behavior” or that publication would put either in “physical danger” would constitute such cause. In Nevada, courts already have authority to waive the publication requirement if it could endanger the personal safety of someone who submits an application to change their name. Nevertheless, a hearing was held last week on a bill that would go even further, explicitly quashing the requirement if the reason for the change is to conform a name with an individual’s gender identity.
Meanwhile, several bills introduced earlier this year have already been withdrawn or defeated, including legislation in South Dakota, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia.
In South Dakota, a House committee voted 11-1 on Feb. 9 to kill a bill that would have allowed cities with population above 5,000 to designate an “official Internet website” where they could publish their notices in lieu of newspapers. According to the South Dakota Newspaper Association, the only vote in favor of House Bill 1167 was cast by its sponsor. SDNA and the governor’s office both testified against it.
The Kentucky Press Association reports that a bill that would have allowed school districts to publish their annual financial statements on their own websites is dead for the current legislative session. The defeat of Senate Bill 118 puts to rest for the moment the bad memories Kentucky publishers have of the period between 2002 and 2015, when school districts ran the statements on their own websites as a result of language that had been added to the state budget. According to KPA, the newspaper notice requirement was resuscitated last year, when Gov. Matt Bevin vetoed that provision in the 2016 budget at the same time he vetoed another budget measure that would have allowed all public agencies in the state to move most of their public notices to government websites.
School boards in neighboring Tennessee were also dealt a blow in the public notice arena last week. Companion bills that would have allowed the boards to advertise sales of surplus property on the web instead of newspapers were withdrawn by their House and Senate sponsors. According to the Tennessee Press Association, TPA members who called the sponsors were told the School Boards Association had not adequately explained the bill.
A House bill in Georgia that would have added important new notice requirements died last week when it failed to cross over to the Senate on the last day for bills to pass one chamber and transfer to the other for consideration. The bill would have required newspaper notice when power companies submit proposals to the state’s Environmental Protection Division to dump coal ash into landfills or to dump water from coal ash ponds into nearby waterways.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jeff Jones, argued at a hearing that posting notice on EPD’s website and providing notification to the local governing authority wasn’t enough. Jones told the committee he wanted to require “true local public notification” and “(t)he best avenue we have to do that today is the publication of ads in the local newspaper, or public organ as they’ve often called.”