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Florida House passes bill that would strip newspapers of legal ad revenue

The bill would allow legal notices from local governments to be sent for free through the mail and would no longer mandate they be published in print newspapers.
Racks of newspaper loaded onto a semi truck heading towards Pasco county at the Tampa Bay Times printing plant during its final press run on Saturday, March 6, 2021 in St. Petersburg. 
Racks of newspaper loaded onto a semi truck heading towards Pasco county at the Tampa Bay Times printing plant during its final press run on Saturday, March 6, 2021 in St. Petersburg.  [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Mar. 18
Updated Mar. 18

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida House on Thursday passed a bill that would strip the state’s newspapers of much-needed legal advertising revenue.

House Bill 35 would repeal a part of current Florida law that requires certain public notices — tax increases, special elections, etc. — to be published in print newspapers. Those notices provide Florida’s more than 100 newspapers with millions of dollars in revenue every year.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, and other proponents say the current public notices system is out of date. The fact that people and local governments must pay print publications to publish legal notices amounts to a government subsidy of the “dying” newspaper business, they argue.

“When the telegram industry died because communication methodologies changed, government didn’t step in and require people to continue to send telegrams,” Fine said.

Florida law sets the discounted rate at which legal notices are published in newspapers and on a newspaper’s website. The Florida Press Association, which counts dozens of Florida’s newspapers among its members, also runs a free website, floridapublicnotices.com, where thousands of the notices are published every month. There’s no need to pay for a print publication if someone wants to see a legal notice.

However, Fine argued, the Press Association’s website still requires residents to have internet access. His bill would allow residents to sign up to get legal notices delivered in the mail from their local governments.

The state’s many print publications — most of which also have robust online publishing outfits — oppose the bill. Millions of Floridians still read the print newspaper, they argue. Legal notices published in widely disseminated print publications provide the community with important information.

Similar bills introduced by Fine passed the House in 2020 and 2019 before dying in the Senate. On Thursday, the bill’s detractors asked Fine to reconsider his approach to the issue.

“There may be an asteroid out there somewhere, and it may be hurtling towards us right now. But until it hits, there’s still some dinosaurs like me left walking around,” Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura. “We’re not as comfortable with what you’re proposing as you are.”

The bill passed 85-34, with most Republicans voting for the bill and most Democrats voting against it. The Senate version of the legislation, SB 402, is scheduled to be heard in its first Senate committee next week.

Related: Florida GOP lawmakers take aim at legal ad revenue in newspapers

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