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Legal notices bill puts focus on importance of revenue streams

Legal notices bill puts focus on importance of revenue streams

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The latest legislative attempt at allowing local government entities to post their legal notices on their website is turning into another round of whose revenue stream is more important.

Republican-sponsored House bills 35 and 51 were presented Tuesday for discussion-only in the Local Government committee. Both bills cleared House Judiciary 4 committee by voice vote on Feb. 16.

The government entities would not be required to place their legal notices on their websites and could opt to continue placing them in newspapers.

The bills would allow government entities to post non-government legal notices for the public on their websites for a fee. Those could include notices for such proceedings as foreclosures, divorces, child custody and estates.

HB35 sponsor Rep. Harry Warren, R-Rowan, said Tuesday he considers the bills as "another tool in their toolbox ... and a means to save money."

Combined, the bills affect 23 counties, covering nearly a quarter of the state. Davidson, Davie and Rockingham are listed in HB35.

However, because HB35 covers just 10 counties and HB51 13 counties, they are considered as local bills and not subject to a veto by Gov. Roy Cooper. A local bill can have up to 14 counties included.

Warren said that "all counties listed were requested by the relevant delegation members."

Warren continued to stress HB35 was submitted, as were previous legal notices bill, primarily "due to economic considerations."

"For government entities, the savings will help offset revenue shortfalls and assist them in meeting budgetary obligations to provide constituent services," Warren said.

Other bill sponsors said the legislation represents recognition of the shrinking of newspapers' reach in their communities, and their view that the revenue from government legal notices is serving as a subsidy.

The N.C. Press Association said that for some community newspapers, public legal notices can represent a significant amount of monthly and annual revenue.

During the 2017 bill discussion, several community and rural newspapers, including the publishers of the Kernersville News and Jamestown News, said losing the revenue from the county legal notices could force them out of business.

NCPA representatives also claim there would be less transparency about government business because fewer individuals would see the legal notices.

"These are not local bills, but a Trojan horse for a larger statewide campaign ... only to avoid the veto of the governor," said Phil Lucey, the NCPA's executive director.

Warren said the bill could be amended to require that links to public legal notices be prominently displayed on government websites.

Bill changes

There have been two significant changes since the bills cleared Judiciary 4. Warren said additional changes are planned before a vote is taken.

The first requires county of Board of Elections to continue to post their legal notices in newspapers to adhere to state law.

The second would maintain the publishing in newspapers of individuals delinquent with past-due taxes.

David Woronoff, publisher of The Pilot of Southern Pines, said that acknowledging the need to keep delinquent tax reports in newspapers proves the NCPA's point about the value of keeping all local public notices in newspapers.

"The reason that the tax liens were removed from this bill is that the counties understand the power and the permanence of the local newspaper," Woronoff said. "It's not what you pay to put the notice in the newspaper, but how much you collect."

He cited that for The Pilot, a $6,700 tax-lien ad netted $800,000 in delinquent taxes ... because the threat of having their name in the newspaper sends chills down people's back and sends them for their checkbook."

Warren said "it's not my intention to denigrate the newspaper industry."

"It's in a period of transition," Warren said, citing national statistics about the number of newspapers that have folded or reduced its number of print days.

"If we can get people now oriented for public notices on a county website, if your town's newspaper goes out of business, as least there will be a place where people know where public notices can be found."

Lucey countered by saying the reach of newspapers has expanded because of its digital presence.

Background

The 2017 effort also involved Forsyth initially, along with Buncombe, Durham and Guilford counties before being whittled to just Guilford.

Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed House Bill 205 after it passed the House by a 60-53 vote and the Senate by a 32-14 vote. It was the first veto of Cooper's first term that was not overridden.

However, later in the 2017 session, a local bill was subject to the gut-and-replace format in the House to have language specifically focused on Guilford County newspapers inserted.

Senate Bill 181 passed the House by a 58-57 vote and the Senate by a 30-16 vote.

According to legislative online media outlet The Insider, Guilford County says it has saved about $109,000 from publishing its public notices on its website since March 2018. The county's website has not introduced posting other public notices on its website.

Sen. Michael Garrett, D-Guilford, has said he plans to refile a bill this session that would rescind SB181.

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@rcraverWSJ

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