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.
As we noted last month, Maine Gov. Paul LePage doesn’t like the newspapers in his state. There’s now evidence to suggest his disgust for print-based local journalism provokes him to stake out irrational positions on public notice bills.
In April, LePage vetoed a bill requiring newspapers to continue posting public notices on their own websites at no extra cost to the state. The veto was counterintuitive but it had an internal logic. LePage doesn’t believe in half measures. He is convinced that newspapers are dying but he’s an impatient man, so he wants to do all he can to hasten their demise.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
On 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.”
It 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.”
Support 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.”