Tag Archives: Nevada

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.”