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Newspapers tout win over public notice bill

RALEIGH (AP) — The North Carolina Press Association is claiming victory in a battle to maintain government notices in newspapers, but the war isn’t yet over.

Two bills in the North Carolina House that would have chipped away at newspaper monopolies over notices of public meetings failed to meet a deadline for the two-year legislative session ending in 2014. But a Senate version of one bill wasn’t subject to that deadline, which requires all bills that don’t involve spending or taxing to clear at least one chamber.

The first House bill would allow 10 counties to use electronic notices instead of newspaper ads. Under the bill, local governments would have to mail or email notices to people who ask for them. Newspapers, which are currently the only game in town and collect revenue from the notices, would remain an option.

The Senate version of that bill applies to different counties but is largely the same.

Supporters have argued the current system isn’t fit for a digital age in which newspapers are no longer the chief source of information. Opponents say removing the requirement ignores the technology gap that exists in many communities and deals a blow to the public’s right to know.

The other House bill would replace newspaper notices with electronic notices for a number of state Department of Environment and Natural Resources announcements.

Rep. Marilyn Avila, R-Wake, successfully pushed for an amendment that replaced the whole bill with her own measure maintaining newspaper control but with discounted rates in cases of multiple notices and free Web publishing. The House voted 68-41 for her amendment, and House leadership pulled all three bills from consideration, effectively killing the two bills subject to the deadline.

Avila said the bills would have allowed government to shirk its responsibility of transparency to save money.

“When we pass taxes and laws and regulations, and we hear the private sector yell, ‘It’s too expensive!’ our response is, ‘That’s your cost of doing business,’ she said. “Well, members, our cost of doing business in public notifications to our citizens is a cost we should incur.”

Avila’s amendment was based on similar measures that passed unanimously in Florida and with near-total support in Tennessee, said John Bussian, attorney for the NC Press Association. He said he thinks the passage of the amendment will help put to bed an eight-year series of similar confrontations between the press and lawmakers, who have routinely pursued similar legislation.

“Sounds like there’s a pretty strong consensus that this is the way this issue should be solved,” he said.

But Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, and the lead sponsor of the two bills, said what the press association is offering is no compromise.

“That’s called a catfish,” he said. “That’s basically creating a monopoly with the press association. They called it a ‘compromise,’ and since they print papers by the dozens and thousands and millions they can keep calling it a compromise, but that’s laughable.”

He said he views the vote on the amendment as a reflection of pressure from local newspaper editors on lawmakers, but he has no plans to revive his bills using procedures sometimes pursued by legislators to circumvent deadlines. The Senate bill, which is still alive, is not meant to hasten the downfall of newspapers, he added.

“It’s about how we best get notice out to the public, and my bill, if somebody wants notice, they’re going to get first-class mail notice,” McGrady said. “They don’t get that now. There’s a lot more options here. This is about money.”

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