House considering bill that would strip legal notices from local newspapers

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A bill that could be considered defunding local newspapers is awaiting action in the Florida House State Affairs Committee, more than a week after a quick introduction and passage in the House Judiciary Committee.

House Bill 7049 went before the Judiciary Committee as a “proposed committee bill,” legislation which, among other things, is a topic of importance according to the committee chairwoman.

“This PCB, 22-02, gives a government entity the option to publish legal notices on a publicly accessible website instead of having to publish the notices in a print newspaper, or on a newspaper’s website,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, one of the bill’s sponsors. “Under the PCB, a non-fiscally constrained county may publish legal notices on a publicly accessible website if online publication is less expensive than newspaper publication.”

This will be almost always true for every county in the state, as the bill lets the counties use their own websites. That means the bill takes a direct shot at a critical income stream for print newspapers, a news medium considered so important to American democracy that it has unique protections in the U.S. Constitution not provided to other mediums like television, radio or online-only – mediums that didn’t exist at the country’s founding, nor received the same legal status when they came into being.

The bill doesn’t just apply to county notices, but to multi-county special districts, as well.

However, the bill’s supporters said the point wasn’t to heap more financial problems on the state’s print newspapers.

“I think that there’s an opportunity to have greater public access to these legal notices, if we move forward with this bill, and with the amendment changes we’ll talk about in terms of streamlining the repository for those public notices,” Grall said when asked by another legislator why the Republican majority is pursuing this legislation after passing a public notices bill last year.

Only one person signed up to appear in support of the bill – Tara Taggart for the Florida League of Cities – but she waived in support and didn’t speak. Every other person, eight of them, spoke against the bill.

“For many years, not because we believe everything a newspaper says in their editorial columns is right or good, but it’s because it’s where businesses go, where they’re trained to look for important notices,” said Adam Basford, vice president of governmental affairs for Associated Industries of Florida. “Specifically, about property rights, about government actions that impact their bottom line.”

He noted Associated Industries of Florida supported the 2021 public notice bill. That bill, H.B. 35, allowed public notices to be placed on the newspaper’s website and the Florida Press Association’s online free repository in lieu of the print edition if the governmental entity met certain conditions.

Among those conditions are that the entity had to have a public hearing, with a notice printed in that newspaper, with the determinations that online publication was in the public interest and the public had enough internet access to where online-only publishing wouldn’t unreasonably restrict public access.

“I want to commend Rep. (Randy) Fine, who I see has joined us, and Sen. (Ray) Rodrigues, who put together excellent legislation regarding public notices last session,” said Emily Walsh, president of the Observer Media Group. “We newspapers in the Florida Press Association have spent countless hours and dollars preparing for this new legislation, as Rep. (Ben) Diamond pointed out, went into effect Jan. 1, and wanted to make sure we got our end of the compromise just right.

“So, it’s a shame we’re back, 31 days later, having the same conversation again. If this bill goes into effect, it will negatively impact how we provide local news and information to your constituents and your communities. Just one of our newspapers produces and prints more than 1,000 legal notices every week. No government agency has the manpower to handle this responsibility.”

Those counties and special districts that took advantage of this policy, if passed, would have to increase their budgets and likely taxes, she said, in order to bring on the new employees, new resources and organize the process of dealing with public notices on their own, or hiring a third-party vendor.

“It sounds like to me, (they) already have the right vendor, your local newspaper,” Walsh said.

Wes Wolfe is an award-winning reporter who covers crime, courts, state government and politics, general politics, agriculture, economic development, poverty and sports at the News-Leader in Fernandina Beach. The News-Leader is Florida’s oldest weekly newspaper. He can be reached at wwolfe@fbnewsleader.com.

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