The Senate Rules Committee took up and passed a controversial bill to eliminate requiring public notices in newspapers.
If passed, the bill (HB 7049) would undo a compromise passed by the Legislature last year that allowed notices to appear online and in newspapers. Instead, this would allow governments the option to publish on a county-maintained public website.
Sen. Jason Brodeur, a Lake Mary Republican, argued this would actually further the goal of public notice requirements.
“When you have the ability for people to access as much as you can access for free, and the goal of it all is to get legal notices to the most people, this really enhances anything we’ve ever done before,” he said.
Senate Rules took up the bill after it passed in the House. Knocking down the requirement for notices to appear in newspapers has long been popular in the lower chamber, but the effort faced resistance until the deal was struck last year to allow dual publishing. Now, the Senate taking up the House bill means it will pass through only the Senate Rules Committee before heading for a floor vote.
Sen. Gary Farmer, a Lighthouse Point Democrat, noted the compromise legislation passed last year has been in place just 67 days as of Tuesday. “Why are we even doing this?” he asked.
The committee drew a number of newspaper executives to Tallahassee, most on behalf of small newspapers that rely heavily on public notices for ad revenue.
But many argued it’s not just self-interest driving their objection. Newspapers are in the business of reaching as many readers as possible in the community.
“If you really want to hide information, put it on a government website,” argued Jeff Kottkamp, a lobbyist for American Lawyer Media and a former Lieutenant Governor.
Critics also argued small newspapers are the best way to put notices in front of older readers and poor minority communities that lack internet access.
Brodeur countered that notion, pulling up media kit information for the Orlando Sentinel, one of the largest newspapers in the state. He noted the paper in reaching out to advertisers boasts that its average reader household income is $78,500, 74% attended college and 47% hold white-collar occupations. That’s not the sign of a media reaching out to its poorest readership.
He also argued the online publishing of public notices by the newspaper gets placed on its website below staff bios and the games section.
Small town newspapers, though, suggested their situation was very different. Moreover, many suggested those expecting the government to operate as efficiently would be disappointed.
“When has government done anything cheaper, faster and with greater innovation than private industry?” asked John Murphy, digital manager for the Citrus County Chronicle.
He said his newspaper company, which publishes a number of notice-sharing publications, has a person dedicated to handling all notices that come in from governments in a five-county area. He doubts putting the work in the hands of 67 counties will prove more efficient. Several publishers suggested the cost to taxpayers by putting this labor as a local government responsibility would prove wasteful.