Florida: Notices on government websites or government cable access channels?

You’ve been following the trail of House Bill 195 since about 12:35 p.m. on Tuesday, January 7 when it was introduced on the first day of the 2020 legislative session. Across the nation, public notice advertising legislation is prevalent. It’s not just Kentucky where legislators try to take the notices out of newspapers. Every state has faced it in one way or another; often times with many, many bills anytime those elected officials convene. And the central theme is to move the notices out of newspapers and onto government websites. But in Florida, a new way of notifying residents of what their governments are doing has taken form in the Florida House. Put it on government cable access TV channels.

From the Public Notice Resource Center

The Sunshine State has Republican majorities in both chambers and powerful GOP legislators who use public notice as a proxy for their ongoing ideological and political battles against the newspapers that cover them.

The powerful pol in Florida is Rep. Randy Fine, a Harvard MBA and former gaming industry executive who represents the southern part of Brevard County. By all accounts, Rep. Fine has quickly made his mark and accumulated power since he was elected to the state house in 2016. He refers to newspapers he doesn’t like as “Fake News” and claims current public notice laws are “a subsidy to a dying industry.” Fine’s HB7 would authorize local governments and state agencies to publish notices on their own websites or on government cable access channels in lieu of newspapers. It would also relieve self-storage facilities of the requirement to publish newspaper notice of their lien sales.

HB7 has passed three committees and is expected to be approved by the full House when it reaches the floor sometime this week. Fine introduced an almost-identical bill in the previous session that passed the House but died in the Senate without making it to the calendar. By contrast, S1340, the Senate companion to HB7, has already been scheduled for a hearing in the Judiciary Committee, so the tea leaves are worrisome. But newspapers in Florida will not give up without a fight. Last week, fifteen publishers showed up to testify against S1340 at a committee hearing that was eventually postponed.

It’s not unusual to see a newspaper-notice-killing bill take flight in Kentucky or Florida. It is surprising, however, when we see one on the move in Hawaii, where SB2898 has now passed three committees by a combined vote of 18-1 and is on its way to the Senate floor. Although the bill would eliminate all printed government notice, Hawaiian newspapers do not appear to have opposed it. The only person who testified against the bill in connection with any of those hearings was County of Hawaii Mayor Harry Kim. Here’s what Mayor Kim told the Senate Ways and Means Committee last week:

“(A)lthough it may be true that, as SB 2898 states, ‘electronic posting is more expedient and cost-effective,’ democracy depends on more than expediency and cost effectiveness. … In the case of public notices, I would argue that all practical sources for disseminating information should be utilized. Declaring that posting on one of innumerable government websites would be sufficient to give all citizens adequate notice of the doings of their government would, I think, be inaccurate, unwise, and contrary to our values.”

Kim also noted that newspapers would have a “tougher time surviving” without the revenue they derive from public notice. He called that “bad for democracy” and wondered whether “this Legislature wants to do anything that might contribute to creating another news desert.”

Idaho HB439, which would allow all notices required by state law to be “electronically published by governmental entities”, stalled in committee after a hearing last month in the State Affairs Committee. According to the Idaho Mountain Express, whose publisher and lawyer both testified against the bill, “Some committee members said they wouldn’t support the bill because they were waiting to see another bill in the works”. The sponsor of that prospective legislation “has been working since last year with various stakeholders, including the Newspaper Association of Idaho, to come up with a bill on the same issue.”

Bills that would eliminate or substantially reduce newspaper notice have also been introduced this year in Alabama, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, New Jersey, Oklahoma and West Virginia. None appear to have any traction at the moment and a few might even be described as dead on arrival.

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