TALLAHASSEE — The newspaper industry was on the defensive Thursday as a House committee approved a bill that could strip legacy newspapers of an important revenue source by no longer requiring local governments to buy ads to publish legal notices about public business.
The House State Affairs Committee voted 14-9 to give local governments the option of publishing legally required notices on publicly accessible websites instead of in newspapers, if that would result in a cost savings to the governmental entity.
The public notice ads are intended to alert the public to things like tax increases, zoning changes, seized property, government meetings, special elections and hazardous waste sites.
Current law requires that all meetings of a county, city, school board, or special district at which public business is discussed be noticed in a local newspaper and on that newspaper’s web site. The local government is required to purchase the ad at discounted rates and a consortium of newspapers also aggregates the notices at floridapublicnotices.com, a free, searchable web site run by the Florida Press Association.
But the sponsor of HB 7, Rep. Randy Fine, a Republican businessman from Brevard County, called the public notice law “a subsidy to a dying industry” and said the requirement has outlived its usefulness in the age of the internet.
“This would modernize that methodology by no longer forcing local governments to pay for these public notices,” he told the committee. “They could put them on their own website and be released from the obligation to pay the newspaper.”
He promised the bill would save local governments millions, but it also requires governments to provide new avenues for notice and neither Fine nor the staff analysis of the bill offered any verification of that claim.
Opponents said the publishing of public notices remains a valuable way to disseminate information, especially in small towns, communities where Internet access and broadband is poor, and among the state’s growing population of elderly residents.
Rep. Ralph Massulo, a Republican dermatologist from Lecanto, said his 88-year-old father “doesn’t have access to the internet. He doesn’t use the internet and, in our county, which is relatively small, we don’t have a lot of broadband access, and we only have one newspaper.”
“Florida has to accommodate our seniors,’’ Massulo said, noting that his county, Citrus, has an elderly population of 37%. “And we have to be responsible for those rural areas. So I’m not going to support your bill today.”
Jeff Kottkamp, the former Republican lieutenant governor and now lobbyist for the ALM Media, which represents the Daily Business Review publications, told the committee that the measure will exacerbate the state’s “digital discrimination” because it leaves out what the FCC says is one in four Floridians without internet access or smart phones.
“There will be a day when everybody is on the Internet but that day is not today,’’ he said, noting that legislators still use hard copies of bills, amendments, calendars and other documents in order to pass laws.
Jim Fogler, president of Florida Press Association which represents 160 daily and weekly newspapers in Florida, including the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times, urged the committee not to “reinvent the wheel” by having local governments replicate the website the newspapers have already built to aggregate public notices.
“We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars building this website to serve Florida government, towns, municipalities, businesses and taxpayers, and it’s free for use by the public,’’ he said.
As a result, public notices in print and on the web reach 7.5 million readers a week, Fogler said.
But Rep. Scott Plakon, a Lake Mary Republican who formerly ran a printing company, said he warned the former Florida Press Association president ,Dean Ridings, in 2009 that “the day is coming” when this law will be outdated.
“This reminds me a little bit of the legacy cab companies and the Uber,’’ Plakon said. “There was resistance from the cab companies that had been around for decades to the new technology that was coming. This is really a very, very similar argument. And I would suggest, this is nine years later, that day should be today.”
The bill gives local governments the option to have the public sign up to have public notices delivered to them by mail. It requires the local government to put a notice in a local newspaper once a year telling people they have the option to join the mailing list.
Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, said that was a bad idea.
“For those of us who still read the newspaper, those public notices, you sometimes stumble upon them,’’ she said. “You won’t do that because you would have to actually contact your county or your city and say, ‘What public notices do you have?’ I don’t think that there are a lot of our seniors that are savvy enough to understand that process.”
Upon questioning by Rep. Bobby DuBose, Fine acknowledged that it was a bit of a contradiction to require an annual notice in what he called an “old fashioned newspaper” while also suggesting that method was outdated.
“I don’t know that I think it actually is necessary,’’ Fine said of the annual ad required in his bill. “But it seemed to be just an extra level of caution. I don’t think people read these in the newspapers. If you look in our districts, a very, very small percentage of our constituents still subscribe to a daily newspaper.”
This is the second year the measure has advanced in the House, where the chair of the State Affairs Committee, Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, said he has been “chomping at the bit” to use the opportunity to chastise the media for a double standard.
“I find it very ironic that the same publications, who would not hesitate to write editorial opinion pieces on the front page, above the fold on the Sunday paper … and basically berate us for listening to special interest groups and their concerns and lobbyists and their concerns,’’ said Ingoglia, a Republican homebuilder from Spring Hill. “When this issue comes up, who fills the room? Special interests and lobbyists talking to us on their behalf.”
Fine’s bill will next go to the full House for a vote. A companion bill in the Senate, SB 1340 by Sen. Joe Gruters, a Republican from Sarasota, is scheduled for its first hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee next week.