Category Archives: State Legislation

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.

Nevada the Latest Public Notice Trouble Spot

Legislation that would authorize radio and television station websites to publish public notices in Nevada has become a serious threat to newspapers in the state, according to the Nevada Press Association (NPA). Senate Bill 218 would establish broadcaster websites as an alternative to newspapers for all legislatively mandated notices in the state, including foreclosure and other private-party notices.

A hearing on the bill was held last week. NPA Executive Director Barry Smith and Nevada Legal News Publisher Scott Sibley testified in opposition to the bill. Smith reminded the committee newspapers in the state already post notices on their own websites at no additional cost to the print version, and all of the notices are aggregated on a statewide side operated by NPA. “The broadcasters association may tell you (SB 218) offers a choice,” said Smith, “but the choice is available only to the government: to choose whether to put a notice in print and online, or whether to put it online only. That takes away the choice for residents and citizens of how they want to read their notices.”

The bill is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford (D-Las Vegas), who is viewed by many observers in the state as a potential candidate for U.S. Senate or governor in 2018. NPA expects the legislation to reach the Senate floor by April 14, the last day for a bill to crossover to the other chamber. Democrats also have a majority in the Nevada Assembly, where they hold almost two-thirds of the seats since regaining control of the lower house in the 2016 election.

This is the third straight session the broadcasters have promoted a version of this bill in the Nevada legislature. Two previous attempts in 2013 and 2015 fell short.

SB 218 is unusual in a couple of respects. First, it is sponsored by a Democrat. A significant majority of the bills in other states that would move public notice to websites are being pushed by Republicans. Moreover, two other bills in the Nevada legislature that are sponsored by Democrats, including one introduced by Senator Ford, would create a new legislative mandate requiring newspaper notice to publicize polling places.

The bill is also unusual in that it would authorize non-government websites to publish public notices. But Nevada isn’t the only state this year where private interests are lobbying for the right to move public notice from newspapers to their websites.

In Vermont, a Senate committee held a hearing last month on a bill that would allow “electronic news media” to publish government notices in lieu of newspapers. Although the bill defines electronic news media in general terms, Vermont Press Association (VPA) Executive Director Mike Donoghue says he was told the bill was proposed by VTDigger, a non-profit news website based in Montpelier, the state capital.

Like the Nevada bill, Vermont S. 97 is sponsored by Democratic members of the state Senate. The few proponents of the legislation who attended the hearing probably knew they were in trouble when one of its sponsors — a stalwart defender of open government and a free press, according to Donoghue — noted in her opening statement she had issues with the bill. The measure is dormant for now since it wasn’t reported out of committee before the state’s crossover deadline. A slightly different version of the bill in the House has seen no action.

Private interests are also pursuing public notice advertising in Missouri, where two bills would move foreclosure notices from newspapers to the websites of the law firms that serve as trustees in real estate transactions in the state. When we reported on the bills last month, they headed the list of public notice concerns of the Missouri Press Association (MPA). More than five weeks have passed since committee hearings were held on both bills and neither has been scheduled for a vote, but HB 428 may get one this afternoon when it is set to be discussed in an executive session.

MPA is now also more concerned about Senate Bill 47, which would allow government notices to be published on the website of Missouri’s Secretary of State. The bill has not yet been placed on the Senate calendar even though it passed in committee by a 3-2 vote, which provides opponents with some comfort. However, its sponsor is highly motivated and can add it as an amendment to a bill on the floor at any time. MPA is actively planning for that possibility.

Like Nevada’s press association, the North Carolina Press Association (NCPA) is gearing up to fight a bill similar to legislation that failed to pass in the state’s two previous sessions. Sen. Trudy Wade (R-Guilford) is once again the primary force behind the effort to pass a sweeping revision of the state’s public notice laws, but this time she has added a political sweetener. In addition to moving most public notice advertising to county websites, S. 343 and H. 432 set the rates counties can charge private parties and other government units for publishing the notices. The companion bills also establish an elaborate scheme for the disbursal of funds generated by the advertising. The latter provision allowed Sen. Wade to claim when she introduced the legislation that it would “increase local salary supplements for public school teachers.”

Sen. Wade also noted in her statement “the bill incorporates provisions supported by newspaper publishers.” She was able to make that claim because her bill includes two sections supported by NCPA as compromise legislation in previous sessions. One would compel newspapers to publish notices on their own websites or on the NCPA website. The other would limit the price they can charge for government notices requiring more than one placement. In 2015, the compromise bill passed the North Carolina House on a 115-4 vote but was shelved in the Senate. Late last week, a new bill containing those provisions was introduced in the House with NCPA’s support. A Senate version is scheduled to be introduced tomorrow.

Sen. Wade is not known as an advocate for government transparency nor is she a great admirer of the newspapers in her state. But she is a determined foe. In 2015, she was able to move an earlier version of her public notice legislation through the Senate, where it passed 26-23 before dying on the House floor. NCPA Executive Director Phil Lucey says Sen. Wade’s public notice bill isn’t the only legislation she has sponsored this session that puts newspapers in its crosshairs. She also introduced a bill that would eliminate an exemption in the state’s labor laws and would reclassify newspaper carriers as full-time employees.

In Arkansas, two bills that eliminate categories of newspaper notice passed last month, while two other efforts to curtail public notice in the state were killed. One of the bills that was enacted moves annual school performance reports from local newspapers to school district websites. The other authorizes counties to publish delinquent-tax lists related to real property mineral rights on the Association of Arkansas Counties website instead of newspapers. The latter still requires counties to provide newspaper notice of the website address whenever a list is published. Arkansas Press Association (APA) Executive Director Tom Larimer says 25 of the 75 counties in the state are affected by mineral rights.

Fortunately, the most significant public notice threat in the state was withdrawn by its sponsor. HB 1836 would have allowed county governments to move all hearing notices and other “official acts” from newspapers to their own websites. It also would have authorized municipalities to post the full text of bylaws and ordinances on their own websites instead of newspapers. Meanwhile, another bill in Arkansas that would have eliminated a category of newspaper notice was amended before it passed. As a result of the amendment, SB 364 still requires the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) to publish application and permit notices in newspapers. The new law now also requires ADEQ to post permitting decisions on its website.

Larimer said that APA faced a rough legislative session in which the association expended a great deal of political capital fighting efforts to increase official secrecy through changes to the state’s open records and open meetings laws.

Here’s a roundup of public notice activity in a few more states:

California: The California Newspaper Publishers Association’s legislative bulletin reports that last month the association convinced the sponsors of three different bills that would have repealed newspaper notice to amend their bills to restore the publication requirement. The bills would have eliminated newspaper notice of government contracts, property-tax due dates and the exercise of self-storage liens. A fourth measure that would eliminate newspaper notice for unclaimed property passed out of committee on a 10-0 vote, but CNPA says that prior to the vote the bill’s sponsor agreed to work with the newspaper business to ensure the notices continue to be published in newspapers.

Idaho: Late last month a bill was introduced that would allow all government notices to be published on government websites in lieu of newspapers. H. 332 is unique in that it would require government entities to place an index tab on their homepage clearly marked “Public Notices” and to maintain “historical record of the posting, including the time and date of the posting.”

Iowa: A Senate bill that would have stripped public notice from newspapers died for now when it failed to reach the floor for a vote before by the state’s crossover deadline. Senate File 158 even had trouble making its way out of a subcommittee despite the fact that the bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Mark Chelgren (R-Ottumwa), is on the committee and is a member of the majority party. As a matter of political courtesy in Iowa, legislation is almost always passed out of subcommittee when its sponsor is in the majority, says Iowa Newspaper Association Executive Director Susan Patterson Plank. Chelgren, who has made no secret of his distaste for his local newspaper, the Ottumwa Courier, briefly made national headlines in February when NBC News reported he inflated his academic credentials.

North Dakota: A resolution requesting a joint committee to study the costs of public notice and recommend “potential notification alternatives” passed both houses. The resolution declares that state agencies spend $3.7 million every two years on public notice, a preposterously inflated figure.

Wisconsin, Missouri on High Alert as Public Notice Bills Churn Through State Legislatures

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.”

Flood of Public Notice Bills Hits State Legislatures

At least 62 bills relating to public notice in newspapers have been introduced in 25 different states through the first week of February, according to a review of bill-tracking software used by the Public Notice Resource Center. In addition, no fewer than 16 other bills targeting public notice in three states carried over from 2016 and are still active.

Many of the new bills merely add or change requirements for particular categories of notice, but at least 12 states are considering legislation that would move all or most of their official notices from newspapers to websites operated or controlled by government units. The potential that any of these bills will become law varies by state, according to newspaper lobbyists, but nobody is taking any of them lightly.

In Connecticut, several different bills that could eliminate newspaper notice in some form or fashion were introduced in the House in January, each by a different Republican member of that body.

In Michigan, the second bill introduced in the House this year would create separate “tiers” of public notice, each allowing or requiring some level of notice by government website. House Bill 4002, which would phase out newspaper notice by 2024, is a “replica” of a bill introduced in the last two legislative sessions by a former representative, according to the Michigan Press Association.

The bill in Kansas that would allow notices to be published on designated “internet websites” is also similar to legislation that has been introduced in the state in the past, according to Kansas Press Association Executive Director Doug Anstaett. It was read in the House last week on the same day KPA members were visiting the capital for the association’s annual lobbying day.

In Missouri, bills have been introduced that could move both government and foreclosure notices out of newspapers. Senate Bill 47 would permit all notices required by law or the courts to be published on an “official government legal notice website established and maintained by the secretary of state.” The bill would allow the secretary of state to charge $10 for each notice. Separate companion bills in the Missouri House and Senate would allow foreclosure notices to be published on websites “hosted by an entity that maintains such website for the purposes of providing web-based notice of foreclosure sales.”

Legislation in South Dakota and Virginia would permit jurisdictions meeting certain population thresholds to move their public notices to government websites. In South Dakota, House Bill 1167 would allow municipalities with population above 5,000 to designate an “official Internet website” that could be used to publish notices in lieu of newspapers. The bill would also require the municipalities to publish two annual newspaper notices specifying where to find documents and other information relating to their notices. A hearing on HB 1167 is scheduled for this Thursday.

In Virginia, House Bill 286 would allow localities with populations of 50,000 or above to satisfy notice requirements by publishing notices on their own websites, or by broadcasting them on a local radio or TV station. Another bill in the Virginia House would allow cities within certain counties in the Washington, D.C. area to post notices on their websites in lieu of newspapers. Both bills were introduced in January 2016 and were carried over to the current session by voice vote.

The two public notice bills in New Jersey that received so much attention in December also carried over to the current session. Governor Chris Christie, who vigorously lobbied for the bills’ passage, has served notice that he will continue to pursue the issue in 2017. Christie issued a letter last month (pdf) claiming that his “office had uncovered additional information that demonstrates the amount of money wasted (on public notice in newspapers) is exorbitant.”

Most of these bills would provide government units with discretion over whether to publish notices in newspapers or on their own websites, which would give government officials the power to punish local papers for coverage they deemed insufficient. However, Iowa Senate File 158, sponsored by 11 Republican Senators, would completely eliminate newspapers’ traditional role of providing notice, requiring all government notices in the state to be published on government websites.

Bills that would permit most public notices to be published on government websites have also been introduced in Illinois, New York, Oregon and Texas. The Oregon bill would move the notices to the websites of associations that represent counties, cities and other state government units. One Texas bill would allow political subdivisions in the state to satisfy notice requirements by posting them on “a social media website.” Another would allow them to publish notices on “any other form of media”.

Not all of the public notice legislation introduced this year would subvert government transparency. At least 22 bills would establish or enhance newspaper notice in particular categories, like gravesite relocations (Florida), government budgets (Mississippi), redevelopment plans (Nebraska), bond measures (Oklahoma, Texas) and issuance of cannabis licenses (New Mexico). Minnesota and Nevada were blessed with three bills in each state — four in Minnesota if you count companion bills — that would increase newspaper notice.

Links to Some Bills Cited Above

Q & A: Beth Bennett, Wisconsin Newspaper Association

In 2016, the Wisconsin legislature created a study committee to “update and recodify” the statute relating to public notice “to reflect technological advances and remove obsolete provisions.” The committee was charged with considering changes to the statute that would “allow for information to be made available only electronically or through nontraditional media outlets.”

The Wisconsin Newspaper Association (WNA) mounted an impressive effort to convince the committee that newspapers and their websites were still the right place for public notice. The committee met three times and ended its review on Oct. 10, deciding to recommend only one change to a minor category of notices. We spoke with WNA Executive Director Beth Bennett about the process.

PUBLIC NOTICE MONTHLY: How did the process get started?

BETH BENNETT: Representative Jesse Kremer requested that the Wisconsin Joint Legislative Council conduct a formal review of how public notices are published by newspapers. Rep. Kremer cited the need to address “new technologies” in the current public notice statute that requires publication in newspapers. He stated in his request that he was working on legislation to change the statute, to allow online-only news sources to be designated as “newspapers of record”. This is just another way of saying that he wanted to amend the statute to allow online news sources to publish legal notices.

PNM: Is Kremer still considering introducing a bill?

BENNETT: Not that I am aware of, but we know of two other legislators who have plans to introduce bills this year that will do-away with newspaper publication of public notices.

PNM: For other newspaper industry representatives who may eventually be faced with a similar situation in their state, can you quickly name the three most important things WNA did to protect its members’ public notice franchise?

BENNETT:

1: A great business model for supporting the statewide public notice website and historical archiving of all public notices via the Wisconsin newspaper archive which dates back to 2005.

2: Providing the Council with the “big” picture of just how involved a process the publication of public notices is.

3. Successfully arguing that there is no other third-party vendor that can represent all of the needs of public notice advertisers like newspapers.

PNM: Did you organize any grassroots outreach by members during this process?

BENNETT: We did not ask members to reach out. There was no real “ask” during the review. We believed that it was better not to lean on the public officials that were a part of the committee before knowing if we even had a problem.

PNM: Was there a key moment in the process when you realized, “Ok, this isn’t going to end badly?”

BENNETT: Yes. It was a real eye-opening moment for the government representatives on the committee when our folks pointed out that the courts and private citizens also place notices and would be affected by any changes in the law. I guess it was the first time they realized that it’s not just units of government that would be affected by any decision made on the publication of public notices.

PNM: Did the process reveal any holes in the Wisconsin newspaper industry’s handling of public notices that you think needs to be corrected?

BENNETT: Only that we would be advised to call on our public notice advertisers in the same way that we call on all other advertisers.

AP Reports on “Fight Against Publishing Notices in Newspapers”

ap_logoOn the final day of 2016, the Associated Press provided subscribing news organizations with a brief story about the “fight against publishing notices in newspapers”. The piece covered Gov. Chris Christie’s stalled attempt to eliminate newspaper notice in New Jersey, and also mentioned new public notice laws passed last year in Arizona and Massachusetts.

“I think with the state legislatures it’s just simply a matter of saving a few bucks,” Kip Cassino, a media analyst at Borrell Associates, told AP reporter Josh Cornfield. “It’s going to keep coming up and I think before the next decade ends, I don’t think you’re going to see the legals in newspapers anymore.”

The 550-word article cited public policy considerations supporting public notice in newspapers only in the final paragraph.

“You don’t want to put the fox in charge of the hen house,” Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association Executive Director Robert Ambrogi told the wire service. “The main reason legal notices are published is to ensure government transparency and government accountability. In order to have that process done in a neutral and objective way, it needs to be managed and overseen by a third party.”

A Google search indicates at least 60 subscribing news organizations published all or part of the story on their website.

Christie’s Effort to Eliminate Newspaper Notice in NJ Stalls

chris_christieIt isn’t unusual for politicians seeking revenge for negative press coverage to retaliate by sponsoring legislation that would eliminate public notice advertising in newspapers. It is unprecedented, however, for the press to openly acknowledge the lawmaker’s intentions and to dub the legislation a “newspaper revenge bill.”

Such is the bruising nature of politics in New Jersey, where Gov. Chris Christie’s effort to move all public notices in the state to government websites was withdrawn from consideration on Monday afternoon. But the newspaper industry isn’t out of the woods yet. The bill remains active and Christie has vowed to make it his “top priority” in 2017. The speaker of the General Assembly has also announced his intention to return to the issue “very soon.”

The legislation was introduced last Monday and had the support of members of both parties, including the Republican governor and both leaders of New Jersey’s Democratic-controlled legislature. By Thursday, it was reported out of Senate and Assembly committees with wide margins and bipartisan support and was fast-tracked for a Monday afternoon vote in both chambers. Things looked grim for the newspaper industry.

But a ferocious lobbying effort mounted by the New Jersey Press Association (NJPA) and wall-to-wall coverage of the “newspaper revenge bill” by the state’s newspapers and their websites unleashed a wave of grassroots opposition that ultimately swept through the statehouse and turned things around. On Monday morning, the Democratic caucus met for several hours and by the end of the meeting it was clear to party leaders the legislation lacked support. Both houses pulled the bill from their voting agendas.

According to press reports, the legislation was the result of a backroom deal between Christie and the Democratic leaders in which each pledged to support two separate bills. In addition to the “newspaper revenge bill,” the other bill would have overridden statutory limits on the governor’s income and allowed Christie to profit from a book deal. It also would have boosted the salaries of Cabinet members, judges and other executive branch personnel, and increased legislative staff budgets.

By all accounts, the deluge of press coverage about the secretive deal-making generated widespread citizen concern, and as a result legislators’ phone lines and email inboxes were overwhelmed. By Monday morning, that grassroots uprising and Christie’s weak political support  — he has an 18 percent approval rating — had turned the tide.

During the two hearings on Thursday and the lobbying that followed, the newspaper industry george-whitewas joined by a wide range of New Jersey-based nonprofit organizations, including unions, environmentalists, and citizen groups. They were troubled by the prospect of eliminating public notice from newspapers and their websites and understood the blow to transparency that would result from spreading the notices across the websites of the state’s 1,000+ lightly trafficked government websites, many of which are haphazardly maintained.

The New Jersey State League of Municipalities and the state’s Association of Counties officially backed the bill, but neither appeared to testify at the hearings. Clearly, support among government officials wasn’t unanimous. “We rely on local press to cover planning boards and township committee meetings,” GOP Mayor Nicolas Platt, of Harding Township, told the Star-Ledger. “This is a bill we did not ask for. This came as a shock to me. We don’t manage our web sites that well.”

The battle generated national coverage, with the Associated Press, New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal among the news organizations reporting on the “newspaper revenge bill” and Christie’s book deal. The national coverage largely mirrored the reporting in New Jersey, where the primary substantive issues addressed were the newspaper closures and loss of newspaper-industry jobs the bill would cause, and questionable assumptions about the taxpayer money that would be saved by moving public notices to government websites.

Christie claimed the bill would save the state $80 million, but his administration never provided a source for its estimate. NJPA estimated that government expenditures on public notice in the state were closer to $20 million, with $8 million paid by the government and the remainder funded by businesses and individuals. In one of the more unusual details of the battle, Christie’s repeated and mistaken claim that homeowners tied up in foreclosure are responsible for paying the cost of foreclosure notices was never challenged in any of the many press reports about the bill.

According to NJPA, the bill would have caused the loss of 200 to 300 newspaper industry jobs in the state. This figure was cited in almost every news report on the legislation. By mid-day on Monday, Christie’s communications team was lashing out at the papers, issuing a release titled “Media Billionaires Continue To Demand NJ Taxpayer Subsidy.” The release focused primarily on Gannett and Advance Publications, the two biggest newspaper publishers in the state, accusing the companies of profiting from “corporate welfare from a mandate that municipalities, school districts and counties publish legal notices in print newspapers, instead of giving them the option to post online.” (Emphasis in the original)

In fact, the bill would have given municipalities the option of purchasing space in newspapers in order to provide public notice. However, as NJPA and others opposed to the bill noted, this provision would have given government officials a club to punish local newspapers for negative coverage.

When the prospects for newspapers were darkest, NJPA offered lawmakers a compromise, agreeing to cut government rates for taxpayer-funded public notice ads by 50 percent while instituting a series of gradual increases in the fees charged for notices subsidized by businesses and other private parties. Public notes rates in New Jersey are set by statute and haven’t been raised since 1983.

“We’re pleased that many legislators and citizens heard our message and ultimately decided not to rush such an important government transparency issue,” said NJPA Executive Director George White (pictured above). “We look forward to returning after the holidays and continuing the conversation about how to effectively modernize the public notification process for the digital age.”

“Legislators in New Jersey recognized with some prodding that this issue is more complex than they thought and the public is very concerned about reducing government transparency,” said Brad Thompson, CEO of the Detroit Legal News Co. and president of PNRC. “We are gratified New Jersey decided not to become the first state in the country to vastly reduce their citizens’ right to know by eliminating public notice in local newspapers.”

    Press Coverage:

Jersey Publishers ‘Not Slowing Down’ in Opposition to Christie Newspaper ‘Revenge Bill’, Politico
The Ramifications of Christie’s Failed ‘Newspaper Revenge’ and Book Deal Bills, The Observer
The Newspaper Issue isn’t Over Yet, NJ Advance Media
Lawmakers’ Revolt Sinks Christie Book Deal, Newspaper Bill, The Record/NorthJersey.com
A Message From Governor Chris Christie On Posting Legal Notices Online, Gov. Chris Christie
Christie & Dem Bosses Get Public Spanking They Deserve, Tom Moran, Star-Ledger
Sorry, Christie, Newspapers are Alive and Kicking, Alfred Doblin, The Record

Texas Legislative Committee Recommends Maintaining Newspaper Notice

texas-mapSupport for public notice in newspapers received another boost on Nov. 1, when a joint legislative committee issued a report (PDF) recommending that Texas continue to rely on newspapers to inform the public about official actions in the state. The Joint Interim Committee on Advertising Public Notices suggested the legislature “maintain the current print requirement” and called newspapers “a third party who both creates a lasting and reliable record of the notice and acts as a gatekeeper to ensure that governments post their notices correctly.”

Texas was the third state this year in which a legislative committee created to study public notice advertising ultimately recommended it remain in newspapers. Legislative committees in Wisconsin and Kentucky both issued their reports in support of newspaper notice in October.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced the appointment of the joint committee in April, asking it to “ensure efficiency, effectiveness and transparency in the way public notices are posted.” At its only hearing, held on Aug. 18, “ none of the lawmakers (appointed to serve on the committee) voiced support for loosening notice requirements,” according to a report in the El Paso Times. Several newspaper industry representatives testified at the hearing, including El Paso Times Editor Robert Moore; Gainesville Daily Register Publisher Lisa Chappell; Beeville Bee-Picayune Co-Publisher Chip Latcham; and Texas Press Association (TPA) Executive Vice President Donnis Baggett.

Although the committee recommended that legislators continue to study the issue, it clearly indicated that government agencies should never be entrusted with the responsibility of providing public notice about their own activities. “(T)here may come a time when the print requirement no longer serves the needs of the people,” the report noted. “In such a circumstance, however, the necessity of placing the notice with a local, third-party media organization likely remains.”

The committee also cited newspapers’ online presence and their willingness to post public notice advertising on their own websites as additional reasons to retain the current statutory requirements.

The committee called on the legislature to distinguish the costs of public notice from other types of advertising, and to create a supplemental notification system through the state comptroller’s office. As TPA’s Baggett noted this week at a Newspaper Association Manager’s meeting in Arlington, Va., the first recommendation was necessary because government agencies in Texas lump all advertising costs together and have no way of knowing how much money they spend on public notice. Baggett also said the committee stipulated that the website and email notification system it is recommending for the comptroller’s office does not alone satisfy the public notice requirement.

Kentucky, Wisconsin Conclude Public Notice Reviews on Positive Note

wisconsinCommittees formed to review public notice laws in two states adjourned last month after showing strong support for maintaining public notices in newspapers. Wisconsin’s Legislative Study Committee on Publication of Government Documents and Legal Notices ended its review on Oct. 10, deciding to recommend only one change to a minor category of notices. Three days later, the Kentucky General Assembly’s Program Review and Investigations Committee ended its 27-month study with no changes.

“The final recommendation of the (Legislative Study Committee) unanimously supported the continued publication of public notices in newspapers,” said Beth Bennett, executive director of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association (WNA), in an email sent to her members following the committee’s third and final hearing. “We believe that the committee conclusions and recommendations will benefit newspaper efforts to fight off attempts to eliminate public notice going forward.”

Bennett said the legislation recommended by the committee would slightly modify a category of notices required to be published by local government units. She said WNA has not opposed the change in the past and will review the legislation when it is drafted.

The review in Kentucky was prompted by a senator’s assertion that the state could save a significant amount of money by moving public notices from newspapers to government websites. The committee staff presented highlights from its 115-page report at its final hearing, which also featured testimony from Kentucky Press Association (KPA) Executive Director David Thompson.

The report showed wide variations in the estimated cost of public notice spending by individual counties, cities, and school districts. Nevertheless, even jurisdictions that spent the most, percentage-wise, devoted a mere fraction of their budget to public notice advertising, according to the minutes of the meeting. For instance, although the city of Sadieville, with a population of 313, spent less than half of 1 percent of its budget on public notice, Louisville/Jefferson County spent even less, just two-hundredths of 1 percent.

KPA’s Thompson told the committee that the state should continue to require public notices in newspapers to support government transparency and ensure taxpayers know how their tax dollars are spent. He said a change in the law and consequent loss of revenue would “be detrimental to weekly papers (who’ve told him) they would probably have to cut one or two employees,” according to a report in The Daily Independent of Ashland.

“Several committee members made comments and asked questions but none were convinced moving notices out of newspapers is best for taxpayers,” reported KPA’s member website.

Note: The photo illustrating this post shows Gregg Walker (left), publisher of The Lakeland Times in Minocqua and the Northwoods River News in Rhinelander, and Andrew Johnson, publisher of the Wisconsin Free Press Group, testifying in July before the Legislative Study Committee. Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.

California Governor Signs Law Redefining Public Notice Jurisdictions

california_flagCalifornia Governor Jerry Brown signed an omnibus bill on Sept. 27 that included comprehensive changes to the state’s public notice law. The changes brought clarity to jurisdictional issues relating to the publication of public notices in the state. The issues first became a concern almost 20 years ago, when the state reorganized its judicial system.

According to the California Newspaper Publishers Association, which supported the legislation, the new law creates Public Notice Districts to define where local notices must be published. These new geographical designations will replace Judicial Districts, which were eliminated when the state’s trial courts were unified in each county in 1998. The law still requires notices to be published in newspapers of general circulation, and it automatically recognizes newspapers currently adjudicated to accept such notices.

The new law will take effect on January 1.