Another Governor Takes Aim at Public Notice

We have found a governor whose animus for newspapers may exceed Chris Christie’s.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage (photo on left) dislikes the papers in his state so intensely he vetoed a bill last month requiring them to continue to post public notices on their own websites at no extra charge to the state. Overwhelming majorities in the legislature overrode his veto the following week.

“I believe that it is good policy for legal notices to be posted online,” LePage explained in his veto statement (PDF). “However, I also believe that requiring legal notices to be printed in newspapers at a fee does nothing but prop up a dying, antiquated industry. The requirement is a taxpayer subsidy of the worst sort.” LePage encouraged legislators to “explore whether we may eliminate the mandate” requiring legal notices to be published in newspapers.

The bill LePage vetoed is similar to legislation in about a dozen other states that requires newspapers that publish notices to also run them on their websites and on their state press association’s statewide public notice site. When Maine’s version of the law originally passed in 2013, it included a sunset provision scheduling its repeal on Jan. 1, 2018. The Legislature passed a law earlier this year canceling the repeal. The Maine Senate, controlled by LePage’s own Republican Party, overrode his veto 32-0. The vote in the Democrat-controlled House was 121-22.

Don’t tell LePage, but at least three other bills still being considered in Maine would adopt new categories of newspaper notice.

The tide has turned in several other states where newspapers once appeared to be vulnerable to catastrophic public notice legislation. 

In Nevada, legislation that would have allowed broadcaster websites to publish notices died on April 14, the deadline for bills to be reported out of committee. The bill was sponsored by Senate Leader Aaron Ford (D-Las Vegas), who allowed it to expire because it didn’t have enough votes to pass the Senate Government Affairs Committee. In his message to Nevada Press Association members, Executive Director Barry Smith gave special thanks to NPA board member Scott Sibley, publisher of the Nevada Legal News and a former Assemblyman, for traveling to Carson City several times last month to talk to legislators.

This was the third straight session in which Nevada broadcasters pushed a version of this bill but it was still poorly drafted, says Smith. The bill’s shortcomings — for example, it would have authorized anyone with an FCC license to publish notices in Nevada, even those who broadcast outside the state — may have emboldened legislators otherwise loath to oppose a bill sponsored by the Senate leader. Several other minor public notice bills in Nevada that would modify newspaper notice in limited circumstances are still pending.

Publishers in Wisconsin breathed a sigh of relief early last month when the Joint Budget Committee removed language from the state budget bill that would have moved a significant category of public notice from newspapers to government websites. Wisconsin Newspaper Association Executive Director Beth Bennett says hundreds of phone calls from newspaper readers in opposition to the budget provisions had a big impact. (Legislators in New York also removed a proposal in their own state budget last month that would have eliminated from newspapers bid notices for public works contracts, according to New York News Publishers Association Executive Director Diane Kennedy.)

Things are also looking up in Missouri. “No news is good news,” says Missouri Press Association Executive Director Mark Maassen about separate bills that would move foreclosure notices to law firm websites and allow government notices to be published on the Secretary of State’s website. Although both bills were reported out of committee earlier this year neither has yet been scheduled for a floor vote. With less than two weeks remaining in the current session and a deadline looming to pass the state’s budget, it looks like newspapers and citizens in Missouri may dodge a bullet.

The North Carolina Press Association is sanguine about Sen. Trudy Wade’s bill that would move all government notice in the state from newspapers to county websites, even though it passed the Senate last week on a 30-19 vote. Their confidence stems from a political stalemate that appears to have halted the bill’s momentum. According to NCPA Executive Director Phil Lucey, Sen. Wade’s bill and a NCPA-supported compromise now both sit in House Rules Committee and neither is expected to move. Like the bill in Maine vetoed by Gov. LePage, NCPA’s compromise legislation would require newspapers to run notices on their websites and on the press association’s statewide site. NCPA members aren’t happy the bill didn’t get a floor vote before the crossover deadline, but if that’s the price they need to pay to kill Wade’s bill it’s a trade-off they’ll gladly accept. It effectively ends the perennial battle over public notice for the current legislative session, which ends in 2018.

Meanwhile, several bills that slightly modify existing public notice law in other states either passed and/or were signed by governors in April:

• Maryland: HB426 / SB311 exempts community colleges from posting bids in local newspapers in favor of eMaryland Marketplace. HB1008 / SB1010 increases the incidence of newspaper notice required for liquor license applications in Harford County while reducing the number of publications required to publish licensing decisions.

• Michigan: SB129 requires newspaper notice of mining permit applications.

• Montana: SB42 adds a newspaper notice requirement for soliciting public comment regarding proposed adjustments in the location of major building facilities. HB103 expands permissible notice of the appointment of boards created for the purpose of counting absentee ballots in an election, from newspapers only to radio or television broadcasts.

• New Mexico: When it was introduced, HB453 would have moved public notice of annual school district accountability reports from newspapers to school district websites. By the time it was signed last month by the governor, it maintained newspaper notice and added the requirement that it be posted on school district websites. 

• Oklahoma: HB1949 originally required local government units to publish newspaper notice of impending votes on the issuance of bonds. Before it was signed last month by the governor, it was amended to require newspaper notice only if the government unit doesn’t have its own website to publish the information.

• Utah: HB117 relaxed the state’s public notice eligibility law by extending the definition of newspapers to include publications that don’t have a U.S. Postal Service periodical permit but that publish at least monthly and contain at least 25 percent non-advertising content of “local or general interest”.

• Virginia: When the outstanding balance is less than $500, HB1909 allows notice of nonjudicial sale of tax-delinquent real estate to be satisfied by a posting on the state Treasurer’s or local government’s website, in lieu of newspaper publication.