Public Policy

New legislative season, new assault on newspaper public notices

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With state legislatures back in session, proposals to kill or modify requirements that public notices be published in printed newspapers are surfacing in worrying numbers.

The Public Notice Resource Center (PNRC), a group formed by newspapers to track and promote the benefits of public notices to the public, reported in March that bills to move public notice to the web—and often out of newspapers—have been introduced in Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Texas, Tennessee and West Virginia.

But the group highlighted bills in two states that it is flagging as especially threatening to newspaper public notices.

In Missouri, a bill is advancing that would allow trustees who hold mortgages in escrow to publish foreclosure notices on websites maintained “for the purposes of providing web-based notice of foreclosure.” (Most foreclosures in Missouri are “non-judicial,” or done without court oversight.)

“Observers believe the trustee law firms that are the biggest proponents of HB 686 intend to build and operate those websites,” the PNRC reported.

A separate bill would move all government notices to government official websites, or to a website operated by the Secretary of State’s office if the government body does not operate a website.

In response, the Missouri Press Association (MPA) is supporting a Senate bill that would require newspapers that publish notices to also post them on MPA’s statewide public notice site. “It would also limit rates by requiring newspapers to include volume or repeat-buyer discounts, and by mandating lower prices for ‘second and successive insertions,’” the PNRC said.

It noted that rates became an issue in the debate over public notice because the state rang up a bill of nearly $6 million “publishing in newspapers throughout the state the full text of all statewide ballot measures—notices that were required by the state constitution.”

A bill in Indiana would move all foreclosure notices from newspapers to county or sheriffs’ websites, the PNRC reported. But it also noted that the Hoosier State Press Association is “cautiously optimistic” the legislation will die in committee.

Most of the bills introduced in the other states “are garden-variety legislation that would require or permit the notices to be published on government websites.”

The group noted that proposals in Idaho and West Virginia would move public notices from newspapers to newspaper websites. Idaho would limit printed public notices to just one placement per notice.

The West Virginia proposed legislation would set out a four-year transition period from printed newspaper publication of public notices to newspaper websites.

The PNRC noted some newspaper successes in the public notice debates. A bill in Wyoming that would have created a state website for public notices was killed in committee in March. And in Colorado, “a bill that would have allowed counties in the state to publish various financial reports on their own websites was killed” in committee around the same time.

In a review of 2018, the PNRC said it “ended up being a relatively benign year for public notice.”

Of 160 bills it tracked, “only 24 were enacted into law and most were vanishingly minor.”

The PNRC tracks news of public notice legislation and has other resources for protecting and promoting public notice on its website pnrc.net.