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As legislatures adjourn for the year, newspaper notice as strong as ever

We’ve heard dire warnings for many years that public notice would soon be moving from newspapers to the internet. Yet here we are, twenty years after the pessimists first began predicting doom, and newspapers are still the primary vehicle for official notice in all 50 states. 

And after several mostly successful years defending public notice in state legislatures, the newspaper industry is faring especially well on that front in 2019. With 33 state legislatures already shuttered for the year and eight others scheduled to adjourn sine die by the end of the month, the third leg of the government-transparency stool is looking pretty stable.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t lawmakers still fighting the bad fight. Bills were introduced in at least ten state legislatures this year that would eliminate newspaper notice and move it to government websites. But with eight of those legislative bodies already adjourned and the two others set to wrap things up within the next three weeks, not a single one of those bills has even made it out of committee.

Moreover, most of the 66 notice-related bills we’ve been tracking that have been signed into law are newspaper friendly. More than half require new newspaper notices in limited circumstances, or supplement existing notices by mandating additional exposure on a government website. Several others amend public notice eligibility requirements, mostly to deal with evolving circumstances created by a shrinking newspaper industry.

And then there are the new public notice laws that defy explanation and don’t make a lick of sense. The state of Utah appears to be in the lead in that category, with two truly wacky pieces of legislation signed by the governor. The first, Senate Bill 145, was a classic piece of sausage making, according to Utah Press Association (UPA) Executive Director Brian Allfrey, who had a front-row seat for the action.

SB145 began as legislation designed to replace existing newspaper notice requirements with personal service “by certified mail or in person” when “all parties for whom the statute establishing the legal notice requirement” can be identified. Never mind, of course, that public notice isn’t intended to address those circumstances. At the initial hearing on the bill, Allfrey indicated he was concerned it would affect foreclosure notices in the state; the sponsor assured him it had nothing to do with foreclosure. Nevertheless, the bill stalled when rural lawmakers in the Senate said they saw it is a threat to their hometown newspapers.

It came back to life when the sponsor amended it to exempt all counties outside of the Wasatch Front, where relatively populous communities like Salt Like City, Provo and Ogden are located. Of course, if the parties whom the notice is intended to alert can be identified, why would the size of the county they live in matter?

Working at the behest of a Utah publication that isn’t a UPA member, the sponsor also included language in the bill he thought would reduce fees paid to newspapers in the bigger cities that publish notices. According to Allfrey, it would actually have the opposite affect, although he has counseled his members not to take advantage of the opportunity to charge higher fees.

The other odd bill in Utah appears to be the result of a simple misunderstanding. SB238 allows certain notices relating to trusts to be published on UPA’s statewide public notice website in lieu of newspapers. It doesn’t make sense, of course, because notices published in Utah newspapers are already posted on the UPA website and the site doesn’t accept direct advertising. The Utah legislature also passed new laws requiring newspaper- and government website-notice to publicize vacancies on local district boards (House Bill 72), and another that modified and standardized eligibility requirements to publish notices announcing the incorporation or dissolution of a municipality, municipal boundary changes, and elections (SB33).

Here’s a rundown of new notice-related laws passed in three other states. In the coming months, we’ll cover the laws enacted in other states.

Arkansas
The legislature adopted two measures changing public notice eligibility requirements to account for news deserts and industry consolidation — a newly proliferating category of legislation. HB1343 and HB1404 allow school districts to publish notices in newspapers with “bona fide circulation” in their counties, replacing the earlier requirement that newspapers eligible to run the notices must be “published in” the county.

SB409 started as a bill that would have eliminated newspaper notice for local government bid solicitations. After the Arkansas Press Association intervened, the version ultimately signed by the governor makes newspapers the exclusive source of bid notices — trade journals are no longer an option — and requires five weeks of newspaper notice for local governments to announce electronic-bid vendors. (We covered the legislative battle over this bill last month.) SB233 transfers responsibility for providing notice of school elections to a different county agency and makes other changes requiring more detail than the previous version of school election notices. SB277 was the only bill passed in Arkansas that reduces newspaper notice, eliminating its use as a vehicle to publicize internet auctions of surplus property held by counties in the state.

Georgia
At least three noticed-related bills were passed in Georgia; all slightly increase the incidence of newspaper notice in the state. HB491 requires the state insurance commissioner to publish newspaper- and government website-notice of the identity of “internationally active insurance groups” subject to group-wide supervision. HB698 adopts several newspaper notices in connection with the establishment of the charter of the City of Covington. HB307 requires newspaper- and government-website notice to locate owners of abandoned motor vehicles and to announce the sale of such vehicles if the owner can’t be found.

Oklahoma
Oklahoma also had a stellar year in public notice legislation. HB2121 expands eligibility requirements for unclaimed property notices, allowing the state treasurer to publish the notice in the newspaper “most likely to be seen by the owner of the property” or their heirs. HB2263 requires newspaper notice of annual meetings of the Water Resources Board. HB2666 requires newspaper notice for public construction contracts exceeding $50,000 in value.

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