Florida lawmakers for years discussed whether to keep requiring notices in print media. The Legislature also still must deal with creating a system so felons know their financial obligations to have votes restored.
Sen. Ray Rodrigues wants to tackle both issues with a single piece of legislation.
The Estero Republican filed a bill (SB 402) that would set up an alternative method for governments to inform the public of meetings while establishing a funding source for a statewide database of financial commitments.
As a member of the House, Rodrigues previously backed efforts to do away with the requirements for legal notices to appear in newspapers. “I’m not in favor of creating a monopoly for legacy print media,” he said. “This is a requirement many believe has outlived its usefulness.”
Rodrigues now sits in the Senate, which hasn’t warmed to the idea of stripping community newspapers of a reliable source of income. As the freshman Senator considered how to find traction for the idea in the upper chamber, he looked at connecting it to another problem facing lawmakers.
The Legislature two years ago controversially passed a bill implementing a voter-approved constitutional amendment restoring voting rights for felons. The bill required all felons to complete all financial obligations related to their criminal sentences before they can register again to vote.
Rodrigues defends the course lawmakers took, but acknowledges a regular criticism: nobody knows what those obligations are. Florida needs a central database where voters and election officials can be certain all financial restitution in fact has been settled. But that requires funding. And with a coronavirus-driven recession thrashing revenue estimates for the coming year, there won’t be much surplus lying around.
Back to public noticing, Rodrigues’ bill would not eliminate newspaper notices but allow an option. Those who publicize meetings through an alternative online publishing mechanism would also pay a fee set by the courts and based on the length of the notice.
The legislation as written imagines requirements that newspapers not charge more to run public notices. The notice website will be managed through the Florida Supreme Court. All revenue generated beyond operating costs would go to the voter restitution database.
Rodrigues said he’s already floated the concept among colleagues in the Capitol and found some interest.
“Whenever you look at legislation that failed in the past, you have to look at ways it can be improved,” he said.
In this case, it remains to be seen how the combination of issues will be embraced. Newspaper publishers may welcome policy that doesn’t eliminate public noticing costs altogether, but Rodrigues’ proposal still means governments who don’t want to put the notices in the paper of record won’t have to do so. Supporters of voting rights restoration, meanwhile, contend the state has put unfair obstacles that tie the right to vote to the ability to pay.