Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Public-notice fight resumes in legislatures; rural Utah papers score a win, but bills are moving in other states

The annual battle over paid public notices in newspapers has begun in legislatures across the country. Missouri and Indiana seem likely to pass bills that would put government and foreclosure notices only online, and not in newspapers, but bills have failed in other states, including Utah, where an appeal to help rural newspapers may have won the day.

The Utah bill, for notices to parties in legal actions, was defeated by four votes in the state House on Tuesday. One lawmaker argued that rural newspapers depend on revenue from public notices, Benjamin Wood reports for The Salt Lake Tribune. "Large newspapers with large circulation can replace that revenue with commercial ads," said Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville. This is an unnecessary provision that appears to do more harm than good."

"The Missouri Press Association is battling two bills," Barry Smith reports for the Public Notice Resource Center. "The one dealing with foreclosure notices "is identical to legislation that was voted out of committees in both the House and Senate last year before stalling. It would move foreclosure notices from newspapers to ill-defined 'internet website(s)' that would almost certainly be operated by trustees angling to profit from the notices they are required to publish before auctioning delinquent properties. "Two of the largest trustee law firms in Missouri have been the primary proponents of the legislation."

Missouri's other bill would require each government body to post required public notices on the front page of its website, if it has one, It also calls for a catchall website where the secretary of state would publish notices for government offices that don't have a website, Smith reports. That bill is also similar to a bill that failed to pass in 2018.

"Perversely, MPA’s effort to stop these bills will be complicated by a clause in the Missouri Constitution requiring the full text of all statewide ballot measures to be published in newspapers throughout the state," Smith writes. "That provision created a political backlash after the state spent almost $6 million on notices last year due to the unusual volume and complexity of issues placed on the ballot for November’s election."

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft warned the House Appropriations Committee that some newspapers had "jacked up their rates" and that if the legislature doesn't pass the bill this year, putting out public notices for another bill next year could cost even more, Smith reports.

In Indiana, a bill would move foreclosure notices from newspapers to county or sheriff's websites. Bill sponsor Wendy McNamara, R-Evansville, argued the bill is necessary because a few papers are charging too much, Smith reports.

Similar bills have been recently introduced in Colorado, Maine, North Dakota, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming. The Colorado and Wyoming bills died in committee, the Virginia bill unanimously passed the Senate last week, the North Dakota bill passed the House last week, and no action has been taken on the Maine bill, Smith reports.

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