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Did the Florida Legislature pass this bill to punish newspapers? Some lawmakers say yes

The bill’s sponsor said it’s about making legal notices more accessible.
Florida Republicans resurrected and passed a bill changing the way legal notices can be published by local governments, a move that would strip revenue from newspapers. [Times file photo]
Florida Republicans resurrected and passed a bill changing the way legal notices can be published by local governments, a move that would strip revenue from newspapers. [Times file photo]
Published Mar. 10|Updated Mar. 11

TALLAHASSEE — For the second time in 11 months, the Florida House voted on Thursday to send a bill to Gov. Ron DeSantis that would strip Florida’s newspapers of legal notice revenue.

Some lawmakers said the move is a jab at publications that sometimes publish stories and editorials critical of the Republican leadership in Florida.

“The free press here in the free state of Florida isn’t reporting what the governor’s communications director wants it to report,” Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, said during a committee hearing on the bill this week.

Supporters of the measure say it shouldn’t be the state’s job to make local governments subsidize newspapers. They say the measure will make notices more widely accessible to Floridians — who may or may not subscribe to a newspaper.

In Florida, local governments are required by law to publish certain notices in print newspapers or on newspaper websites. Those notices include updates on government meetings and budgets, code enforcement notifications and hazardous waste disposal notices.

House Bill 7049, which now heads to DeSantis, would eliminate the requirement for local governments to publish those notices in a third-party publication. Instead, governments would be allowed to publish them on a county website.

The measure cleared the Senate 26 to 13, and the House 79 to 40, mostly along party lines.

Sen. Jason Brodeur, R-Lake Mary, spoke in favor of the bill, saying governments should direct tax dollars “towards the most vulnerable,” and not to companies that make a product that “nobody wants.”

But detractors of the measure, including newspaper publishers, say legal notices contain important public information. Notices should be published by an independent third party because governments have no incentive to publish legal notices in a way that is easily accessible for Floridians, they argue.

Critics also note that under the new bill, the state’s legal notices could be strewn across 67 different county websites instead of the centralized clearinghouse run by the Florida Press Association — Floridapublicnotices.com. (That association represents dozens of newspapers, including the Tampa Bay Times and the Miami Herald.)

“If I wanted to hide something from the public that’s required to be noticed, this is exactly the process I would use,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, during a Senate committee hearing this week. “I would throw it on one of 67 different websites.”

The push for this year’s bill came less than three months after changes went into effect from a bill last year that also took aim at the state’s legal notices rules.

Among other things, that measure, House Bill 35, expanded the number of newspapers eligible to publish legal notices in the hopes of driving down costs for local governments. It also required all legal notices in the state to be published on Floridapublicnotices.com, the searchable database run by the Florida Press Association.

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Related: Florida lawmakers pass compromise measure affecting newspaper ad revenue

During the 2021 session, legislators passed the legal notices bill after hours of negotiations between lawmakers, press advocates, newspaper officials and lobbyists. The Florida Press Association supported it — even though the largest papers are poised to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal notice revenue this year as a consequence of the bill.

That’s why it came as a surprise to the newspaper industry when the Legislature raised this year’s measure.

“We had a deal with you guys,” Todd Wilson, the publisher of the Lake City Reporter, told a panel of Senate lawmakers this week. “The law only went into effect 67 days ago, and I’m asking you all to give it a chance to work.”

Republicans in the Florida House, led by Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, have been pushing for years to allow local officials to publish legal notices on government websites. For years, the Florida Senate remained a roadblock.

That changed this year when Senate leadership allowed House Bill 7049 to be heard in a committee during the last week of session.

When asked whether he aimed to punish newspapers with the bill, Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said the bill was heard in the Senate because it’s a policy improvement.

“We now have been having things online for many years,” Simpson said. “If you want some additional transparency, going online will give you that transparency.”

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