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Legislative siege on newspaper-published public notices intensifies

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Legislators in literally half of the United States began the new year by introducing more than 60 bills relating to public notices—many of which would have the effect of taking public notices out of newspapers.

In an alert issued in early February, the Public Notice Resource Center said it had tracked 62 bills about public notice that were introduced in 25 states. And it noted that in three states, 16 bills from 2016 are still active—including the legislation in New Jersey that attracted national attention in December.

“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,” PNRC wrote.

“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,” PNRC added.

But a bill filed in the Iowa Senate would eliminate any choice for newspaper publication, requiring all government notices to be published on government websites, the PNRC noted.

And in Texas, a bill is under consideration that could conceivably let jurisdictions satisfy the requirement to publish public notices by Tweeting them. The bill says publication on “a social media website” would be sufficient, the alert said.

Here are some notable public notice bills introduced in the first five weeks of 2017:
In Missouri, proposed legislation would effectively push government and foreclosure notices out of newspapers. PNRC said a Senate bill would permit legally required notices to be posted on “official government legal notice website established and maintained by the secretary of state.”

Another proposal, introduced both in the Missouri Senate and House, 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.”
PNRC noted that bills in Virginia and South Dakota would allow public notices to be placed online rather than in newspapers, depending on the size of the municipality. In Virginia, a House bill would let municipalities with populations above 50,000 to simply post them on their own websites or by broadcasting them on local television or radio.

In the case of South Dakota, a House bill would let communities of just 5,000 or more to publish public notices just on an “official internet site.” Not that the backers of this legislation have forgotten 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,” PNRC reported.

In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie appears to be doubling down on the public notice legislation that failed in the last legislature, handing him an embarrassing defeat.

In December, he justified the legislation with the dubious calculation that allowing online posting of public notices would save the Garden State $80 million annually. The New Jersey Press Association countered that the cost was closer to $20 million, with just $8 million paid by the state, and the rest by businesses or individuals. But in January, PNRC said, Christie claimed in a public statement that his “office had uncovered additional information that demonstrates the amount of money wasted (on public notice in newspapers) is exorbitant.”

A final caution from the Public Notice Resource Center: “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.”