Nevada is the latest public notice trouble spot

May 3, 2017

By Richard Karpel

Public Notice Resource Center

Legislation that would authorize radio and TV station websites to publish public notices in Nevada has become a serious threat to newspapers in the state, according to the Nevada Press Association. Senate Bill 218 would establish broadcaster websites as an alternative to newspapers for all legislatively mandated notices in the state, including foreclosure notices and other private-party public declarations.

A hearing on the bill was held recently. NPA Executive Director Barry Smith and Nevada Legal News Publisher Scott Sibley testified in opposition to the bill. Smith reminded the committee that newspapers in the state already post notices on their own websites at no additional cost to the print version, and all of the notices are aggregated on a statewide site operated by NPA.

“The broadcasters association may tell you (SB 218) offers a choice,” said Smith, “but the choice is available only to the government: to choose whether to put a notice in print and online, or whether to put it online only. That takes away the choice for residents and citizens of how they want to read their notices.”

The bill is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford, D-Las Vegas, who is viewed by many observers in the state as a potential candidate for U.S. Senate or governor in 2018. NPA expects the legislation to reach the Senate floor by April 14, the last day for a bill to crossover to the other chamber. Democrats also have a majority in the Nevada Assembly, where they hold almost two-thirds of the seats since regaining control of the lower house in the 2016 election.

This is the third straight session the broadcasters have promoted a version of this bill in the Nevada legislature. The two previous attempts in 2013 and 2015 fell short.

SB 218 is unusual in a couple of respects. First, it is sponsored by a Democrat. A significant majority of the bills in other states that would move public notice to websites are being pushed by Republicans. Moreover, two other bills in the Nevada legislature that are sponsored by Democrats, including one introduced by Ford, would create a new legislative mandate requiring newspaper notice to publicize polling places.

The bill is also unusual in that it would authorize non-government websites to publish public notices. But Nevada isn’t the only state this year where private interests are lobbying for the right to move public notice from newspapers to their websites.

In Vermont, a Senate committee held a hearing in March on a bill that would allow “electronic news media” to publish government notices in lieu of newspapers. Although the bill defines electronic news media in general terms, Vermont Press Association Executive Director Mike Donoghue said he was told the bill was proposed by VTDigger, a non-profit news website based in Montpelier, the state capital.

Like the Nevada bill, Vermont S. 97 is sponsored by Democratic members of the state Senate. The few proponents of the legislation who attended the hearing probably knew they were in trouble when one of its sponsors—a stalwart defender of open government and a free press, according to Donoghue—noted in her opening statement that she had issues with the bill. The measure is dormant for now because it wasn’t reported out of committee before the state’s crossover deadline. A slightly different version of the bill in the House has seen no action.

Private interests are also pursuing public notice advertising in Missouri, where two bills would move foreclosure notices from newspapers to the websites of the law firms that serve as trustees in real estate transactions in the state. When we reported on the bills last month, they headed the list of public notice concerns of the Missouri Press Association. More than five weeks have passed since committee hearings were held on both bills and neither has been scheduled for a vote, but HB 428 might get soon when it is set to be discussed in an executive session.

MPA is now also more concerned about SB 47, which would allow government notices to be published on the website of Missouri’s Secretary of State. The bill has not yet been placed on the Senate calendar, even though it passed in committee by a 3-2 vote, which provides opponents with some comfort. However, its sponsor is highly motivated and can add it as an amendment to a bill on the floor at any time. MPA is actively planning for that possibility.

Like Nevada’s press association, the North Carolina Press Association is gearing up to fight a bill similar to legislation that failed to pass in the state’s two previous sessions. Sen. Trudy Wade, R-Guilford, is once again the primary force behind the effort to pass a sweeping revision of state’s public notice laws, but this time she has added a political sweetener. In addition to moving most public notice advertising to county websites, S. 343 and H. 432 set the rates counties can charge private parties and other government units for publishing the notices. The companion bills also establish an elaborate scheme for the disbursal of funds generated by the advertising. The latter provision allowed Wade to claim when she introduced the legislation that it would “increase local salary supplements for public school teachers.”

Wade also noted in her statement “the bill incorporates provisions supported by newspaper publishers.” She was able to make that claim because her bill includes two sections supported by NCPA as compromise legislation in previous sessions. One would compel newspapers to publish notices on their own websites or on the NCPA website. The other would limit the price they can charge for government notices requiring more than one placement. In 2015, the compromise bill passed the North Carolina House on a 115-4 vote but was shelved in the Senate. Late last week, a new bill containing those provisions was introduced in the House with NCPA’s support. A Senate version was scheduled to be introduced in April.

Wade is not known as an advocate for government transparency nor is she a great admirer of the newspapers in her state. But she is a determined foe. In 2015, she was able to move an earlier version of her public notice legislation through the Senate, where it passed 26-23 before dying on the House floor. NCPA Executive Director Phil Lucey said Wade’s public notice bill isn’t the only legislation she has sponsored this session that puts newspapers in its crosshairs. She also introduced a bill that would eliminate an exemption in the state’s labor laws and would reclassify newspaper carriers as full-time employees.

In Arkansas, two bills that eliminate categories of newspaper notice passed last month, while two other efforts to curtail public notice in the state were killed. One of the bills that was enacted moves annual school performance reports from local newspapers to school district websites. The other authorizes counties to publish delinquent tax lists related to real property mineral rights on the Association of Arkansas Counties website, instead of newspapers. The latter still requires counties to provide newspaper notice of the website address whenever a list is published. Arkansas Press Association Executive Director Tom Larimer said 25 of the 75 counties in the state are affected by mineral rights.

Fortunately, the most significant public notice threat in the state was withdrawn by its sponsor. HB 1836 would have allowed county governments to move all hearing notices and other “official acts” from newspapers to their own websites. It also would have authorized municipalities to post the full text of bylaws and ordinances on their own websites instead of newspapers. Meanwhile, another bill in Arkansas that would have eliminated a category of newspaper notice was amended before it passed. As a result of the amendment, SB 364 still requires the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) to publish application and permit notices in newspapers. The new law now also requires ADEQ to post permitting decisions on its website.

Larimer said that APA faced a rough legislative session in which the association expended a great deal of political capital fighting efforts to increase official secrecy through changes to the state’s open records and open meetings laws.

Here’s a roundup of public notice activity in a few more states:

California: The California Newspaper Publishers Association’s legislative bulletin reports that last month the association convinced the sponsors of three different bills that would have repealed newspaper notice to amend their bills to restore the publication requirement. The bills would have eliminated newspaper notice of government contracts, property tax due dates and the exercise of self-storage liens. A fourth measure that would eliminate newspaper notice for unclaimed property passed out of committee on a 10-0 vote, but CNPA says that prior to the vote, the bill’s sponsor agreed to work with the newspaper business to ensure the notices continue to be published in newspapers.

Idaho: In March, a bill was introduced that would allow all government notices to be published on government websites in lieu of newspapers. H. 332 is unique in that it would require government entities to place an index tab on their homepage clearly marked “Public Notices” and to maintain “historical record of the posting, including the time and date of the posting.”

Iowa: A Senate bill that would have stripped public notice from newspapers died for now when it failed to reach the floor for a vote before by the state’s crossover deadline. Senate File 158 even had trouble making its way out of a subcommittee, despite the fact that the bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa, is on the committee and is a member of the majority party. As a matter of political courtesy in Iowa, legislation is almost always passed out of subcommittee when its sponsor is in the majority, said Iowa Newspaper Association Executive Director Susan Patterson Plank. Chelgren, who has made no secret of his distaste for his local newspaper, the Ottumwa Courier, briefly made national headlines in February when NBC News reported he inflated his academic credentials.

North Dakota: A resolution requesting a joint committee to study the costs of public notice and recommend “potential notification alternatives” passed both houses. The resolution declares that state agencies spend $3.7 million every two years on public notice, a preposterously inflated figure.