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Cooper vetoes electronic legal notices in urban county

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed legislation Monday that would have allowed local governments and attorneys in an urban county to stop posting legal notices in newspapers and put them on government websites instead.

The legal notice changes would have applied only to Guilford County, the home of a state senator who for years has led the push for county and municipal governing boards statewide to have the option.

Opponents of the current measure, approved in the final days of the General Assembly session, consider it a financial attack on Guilford-area newspapers, which generate advertising revenues from the notices.

The Democratic governor said the measure marked another instance of the Republican-controlled legislature using “levers of big government to attack important institutions in our state who may disagree with them from time to time.”

“Unfortunately, this legislation is another example of that misguided philosophy meant to specifically threaten and harm the media,” Cooper said in his written veto message. “Legislation that enacts retribution on the media threatens a free and open press, which is fundamental to our democracy.”

The measure also could make it harder for newspapers to keep carriers identified as independent contractors, rather than actual employees subject to workers’ compensation benefits, when the designation is formally challenged.

Had Guilford County agreed to the pilot program, the law would have created a county website where attorneys could post notices like foreclosures and estate sales for a fee, instead of buying newspaper ad space. Half of the government revenue would have gone to higher teacher salaries in Guilford County. Local governments also could have avoided newspaper filings by agreeing to post public hearing and meeting notices on their own websites.

Sen. Trudy Wade, a Guilford County Republican and a top proponent of electronic notices, blasted Cooper for the veto, which “makes it clear his No. 1 priority is brown-nosing those who cover him.”

Cooper’s veto, Wade said in a release, is “to the detriment of the newspaper employees being denied workers compensation coverage, the taxpayers currently being forced to subsidize newspapers, the citizens who want to access public information for free and the public school teachers he’s denying raises to.”

The veto is Cooper’s eighth since taking office and stands a chance of getting upheld in an override vote. The House passed the bill 60-53 — well short of a veto-proof majority, with more than a dozen Republicans voting no. The General Assembly reconvenes for an override session Aug. 3.

Supporters of broad electronic notice legislation argue it would save taxpayers money, but press groups have been worried it could make it hard for small newspapers to survive and for rural residents with poor internet service to access information.

North Carolina Press Association attorney John Bussian said in a phone interview the group “wholeheartedly supports the veto … for all the reasons North Carolina newspapers have long argued — that the bill would seriously damage the public’s right to know.”

Cooper said he did support a portion of the bill addressing workers’ compensation coverage for prisoners who produce goods and asked lawmakers to pass a separate bill containing the provision.

Legislators overrode Cooper’s first five votes, while two more issued after the legislature adjourned June 30 have yet to be reconsidered. More than 80 bills sat on Cooper’s desk as of Monday. He has until July 30 to sign them, veto them or let them become law without his signature.

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