Opinion, WVPA Sharing

West Virginia newspaper industry opposes House Bill 4260

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The West Virginia Press Association, on behalf state’s newspapers, is sharing the following talking points on its opposition to House Bill 4260.

Use this link for House of Delegates phone numbers and emails.

No. 1 – There is no need for HB 4260:

Just last year, during the 2021 session, the full Legislature passed into law Senate Bill 642, which orders the Auditor to create a state website for legal ads and requires all state agencies to place their legal ads on the website once it’s functioning.

This new law adds publication on a state website, in addition to the traditional publication in newspapers, to increase public notice.

No.  2 – We can make informed decisions:

In addition to SB 642, Senate Concurrent Resolution 57 passed. It calls for a related study of the state’s website for publication of legal notices in lieu of newspaper publication. The study will consider cost savings and the effectiveness of public notice. The state auditor’s office is working on the website now and data can be gathered once it’s online.

Those two pieces of legislation give West Virginia the opportunity to make informed and properly researched decisions and develop policy on public notice without the risk of disenfranchising tens of thousands of West Virginians who count on the community awareness of the traditional newspaper publication of legal ads, who don’t have access or can’t afford quality broadband internet service and computers, or who just aren’t able to do the online research.

No. 3 – HB 4260 reduces public notice:

This proposed legislation would make newspaper publication of the second and third run of legal ads optional without ensuring adequate replacement. Under current law, residents get the traditional second and third publication for Class II and Class III legal ads and online publication. For West Virginia residents in areas without adequate internet service, this bill reduces public notice.

Class II and Class III legal ads often deal with property forfeitures, tax sale and issues that impact communities (industrial developments and permitting) or residents (adoptions, estate settlements).  Eliminating the second and third publication without adequate replacement notice opens government entities to lawsuits and legal challenges.

No. 4 – The legal ad expense figures don’t accurately reflect the cost of public notice:

While most are aware that state code sets the advertising rate for legal ads and second and third runs are automatically discounted 25 percent, there is not a clear reporting of revenue generated from publication and handling fees on legal advertisements.  Class II and Class III legal ads, in particular, generate revenue from publication and handling fees by passing those costs on to the property owner. That revenue should be deducted from the publication expense to get an accurate cost figure.

Additionally, state, county, and even municipal entities, especially in border counties, choose to run legal ads for contracts, bids and sales in extra counties, other states and with online services to generate interest. This optional spending should also be deducted from the code-required legal ad expense to get an accurate cost of giving public notice.

No. 5 – HB-4260 would require counties, cities, and the private sector to rely on a legal ad system that has not been tested:

Placing a public notice or legal ad is not just a formality. It’s code mandated and court monitored. There is a true liability. Multi-million-dollar projects and deadlines are involved. This bill would put new duties, responsibilities and liabilities on county and city employees at a time when staffing is an issue, when internet service is questionable and before the impact of a state website has been determined.

No. 6 – Now is not the time for HB-4260:

West Virginia’s economy is still recovering from COVID and other downturns. The state is actively working to attract new business and jobs through investment and tax incentives. HB-4260, in addition to reducing public notice, would have an immediate negative impact on existing businesses in all 55 counties. What county or municipality is better serviced if its local newspaper closes?

West Virginia newspapers support broadband internet and online commerce. Within the last two years, six more small weekly newspapers have invested in website development. Nearly three quarters of the state’s newspapers have quality websites. The newspaper industry has funded WVLegals.com as a free website for access to legal advertising. Maintaining the current standard of legal ad publication ensures proper public notice and encourages this continued private investment and development in the newspaper industry.

No. 7 – Newspaper publication is not a government subsidy:

Placing legal ads in West Virginia newspapers gives government bodies a proven, court-tested, archivable method of providing public notice to residents. Newspaper publication provides community and family awareness in the impacted area. Residents know where to look for this credible, third-party publication.

Newspapers do see a financial benefit from legal advertising, just as they see a benefit from retail shops, grocery, auto and other advertising, but it’s a fair exchange of value. A newspaper’s readership makes the purchase of legal advertising a wise investment. The legal ads are packaged with related and current community news and get mass distribution in the impacted area. In many areas of the state, the community newspaper is the sole source of significant credible local news coverage. It should also be noted that a survey found more than 95 percent of newspaper readers own property.

In closing:

The West Virginia newspaper industry supports online publication of legal ads and internet expansion. We worked for and supported SB-642 last session. Our newspapers do, however, oppose reduction of public notice. Technology is changing our industry and public notice systems are improving. Legislation passed last session allows us a change to monitor, measure and change as the technology in West Virginia allows.

HB-4260 only reduces public notice for citizens of the state.   

West Virginia lawmakers should reject limit on access, vote no on House Bill 4260

An editorial from the Parkersburg News and Sentinel:

As they have since 2019, a few lawmakers in Charleston want to make sure you have reduced access to what government at all levels is doing. It has become an annual tradition for a clutch of them to support changes in the way required legal advertisements are made available to you, the taxpayers.

This year, Delegate Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, is pushing for House Bill 4260, which would establish a centralized website clearinghouse for county and municipal legal advertisements, requiring the State Auditor’s Office to build and maintain the site. It would also reduce time limits for certain kinds of legal ads to remain published in newspapers.

Much of that action was addressed last year in Senate Bill 642, which is now law. However, that legislation increased public notice by adding online publication through the yet-to-be-completed government website without reducing print publication in local communities.

Oddly, Steele’s mission to reduce your access to public information hinges largely on the idea that said information will be available on a website. This during the same legislative session in which we have repeatedly been told internet access in West Virginia is woefully inadequate — 300,000 of the approximately 700,000 addresses in the Mountain State do not have adequate broadband service, according to West Virginia Department of Economic Development Secretary Mitch Carmichael.

Lawmakers also have repeatedly lamented that our state has among the oldest populations in the country. More than one-fifth of the population is over 65 — a population that still tends to get more of its information from newspapers than do younger generations.

Steele is fully aware of these numbers. One almost gets the feeling he is hoping to take advantage of them. Increasing the opacity of government, but particularly for those, one could argue, who have the most interest in knowing what their governments are doing, serves only government and King Bureaucracy, and Steele knows it.

Taxpayers should have as many ways as possible to see what governments are doing. After all, THEY are paying for it. Limiting one of those options, and making the other option a fox-guarding-the-henhouse centralized website to whom not everyone has access is intentionally poor stewardship of our money. Surely lawmakers who understand that will toss this bill into the trash, where it belongs.

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