Dark Clouds Dissipate on Legislative Front

The year began with a bang but may end with a whimper.

Legislation that would fundamentally alter public notice laws has been introduced in 21 states in 2017, and several of those bills once had real momentum. But with Memorial Day now behind us, 36 state legislatures have already adjourned and not a single one of those formerly worrisome bills is close to passage.

The latest threat to subside was in Missouri, where newspapers had been nervous about two separate bills that were reported out of committee. One would have moved municipal notices to government websites and the other threatened to shift foreclosure notices to websites operated by law firms. The clock ran out on both bills when the legislature adjourned in mid-May.

Bills that would have moved most public notice to government websites also died in Texas and Florida last month, without ever receiving a hearing, when the legislatures in those states adjourned sine die. And legislation that would fundamentally alter public notice in four other states that have adjourned appears to have no realistic prospect of passage even though the bills will be carried over until the end of next year’s session. 

The only public notice bills approved so far in 2017 introduce modest changes. At least nine states passed laws adding or enhancing newspaper notice requirements in narrowly defined circumstances, like grave relocations in Florida, mining permit applications in Michigan, and new prison facilities in Arizona. No fewer than six others moved similarly limited categories of notice to non-traditional venues, including government and radio/TV station websites.

Two states made slight changes to their main public notice statutes. Illinois revised notice requirements for jurisdictions without a newspaper and made technical corrections regarding type size and publication on the Illinois Press Association statewide public notice site. (The governor hasn’t signed the bill yet but is expected to do so.) Utah extended its eligibility requirements to publications that don’t have a periodical permit but publish at least monthly and contain at least 25 percent non-advertising content of “local or general interest”.

Many of these bills were so minor that state press associations didn’t take a position on them.

Keep in mind that public notice legislation could still move unexpectedly in any of the 14 states that haven’t yet adjourned this year. Last year’s epic public notice battle in New Jersey, for example, wasn’t joined until Gov. Chris Christie decided to target newspapers a couple of weeks before the Christmas holiday.

As if to remind the newspaper industry never to relax, another similarly unexpected bill backed by a newspaper-hating governor emerged last week in Maine, three weeks before the legislature is scheduled to adjourn. Introduced at the behest of Gov. Paul LePage, LD 1630 would move all public notice in the state from newspapers to a website operated by the Department of Administrative and Financial Services. The Maine Press Association is preparing for a potential hearing on the bill later this week.