Press attorney: newspapers targeted by bill on legal ads

jmorrill@charlotteobserver.comApril 16, 2013 

— Prompting one press advocate to accuse Senate Republican leaders of “targeting the newspaper industry,” a Senate panel Tuesday approved a bill that would let local governments shift their legal notices to the Internet.

The vote sparked a brief but heated exchange between one newspaper executive and a senator from Union County.

Legal advertising, including zoning notices and lists of delinquent taxpayers, is a source of revenue for all newspapers, especially for smaller ones.

Newspaper executives from around the state argued that newspapers offer the best chance to get information to the public. They said many people, particularly in rural areas, would never see the notices if they’re only on a government Web site.

Supporters say the bill would save cities and counties money by giving them the option to publish notices on their own Web sites.

Senate Bill 287 affects a little more than a dozen jurisdictions, including Mecklenburg, Wake and Guilford, at least some of which asked to be included. It’s scheduled for a vote by the full Senate on Thursday.

Other bills involving legal notices have been introduced in the House, including one Republican-sponsored measure that the press group sees as a compromise.

“It’s obvious … that the Senate leadership is targeting the newspaper industry to inflict financial damage on the industry and the public’s right to know,” said John Bussian, counsel to the N.C. Press Association.

Todd Allen, publisher of the Wake Weekly, said the measure appears motivated by Senate leaders who “don’t like newspapers and their coverage.”

Sen. Tommy Tucker, a Union County Republican who co-chairs the State and Local Government Committee, disputed that.

“Republican leadership is not after the press,” he said.

For one thing, he said, the bill doesn’t apply statewide. For another, it gives local governments the choice of placing notices in newspapers or online.

It was a choice sought by many local governments, including the City of Charlotte. In 2008-2009, the city spent $235,000 in advertising of all kinds.

Mecklenburg County spent $79,000 this month to publish a list of delinquent taxpayers. Newspaper advocates say such ads are more likely than online postings to get delinquents to pay, helping governments recoup their costs.

“It would provide local governments flexibility,” said Dana Fenton, the city’s chief lobbyist. “Charlotte-Mecklenburg and all the (county’s) towns are served by broadband, so it seemed like a natural fit.”

GOP Sen. Jeff Tarte, a former mayor of Cornelius, said he found support for the measure from all of Mecklenburg’s six small towns as well as Charlotte.

“They want the option,” he said.

A press association official said legal notices generate up to 40 percent of the revenues for small papers, if only a small part of those of larger papers. Observer Publisher Ann Caulkins said the bill would “break the back” of many small papers.

“It’s wrong to call it a ‘public notice’ when so much of the public can’t get to it because it’s on a Web site,” she said.

The committee passed the measure by voice vote. Bussian, the press association lobbyist, said the committee voted 6-5 to reject the measure. Tucker, the chair, rejected a subsequent appeal for a show of hands and declared the meeting adjourned.

At that point, Hal Tanner, publisher of the Goldsboro News-Argus, approached Tucker. He told him he thought the vote was handled in a manner inconsistent with Republican stands for open government.

“I said, ‘We just got through dealing with Jim Black,’ ” Tanner later recalled, referring to the former Democratic House speaker jailed on corruption charges.

“I’m not Jim Black, I’m not Jim Black,” an angry Tucker replied. Senate rules prohibit roll call votes in committee.

Later, in an email to members, the press association quoted Tucker telling Tanner: “I am the senator. You are the citizen. You need to be quiet.”

Tucker disputes the quote.

“I said something to the effect that, ‘I’m the senator here, let me finish,’ ” he said. “I just took offense to it because he impugned our integrity. And I took it personally.”

Morrill: 704-302-6359

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