When the public hears the words “local legislation,” it usually envisions bills written so narrowly in scope that they affect only one or two counties or cities at most. That is, after all, the plain meaning of the word “local.”
What comes to mind are bills like the one several years ago allowing College of The Albemarle to use state education bond funds to help Currituck and Dare counties build public facilities. That was a local bill.
What doesn’t come to mind are bills like state House Bill 35 and state House Bill 51, both of which would rewrite state law to allow local governments to bypass newspapers and post public and legal notices on their websites instead. House Bill 35 is written to affect more than a dozen counties stretching from Swain County in the west all the way to Currituck in the east. House Bill 51 is written to affect 13 counties stretching from Camden in the north to Carteret in the south to Harnett in the west. There’s absolutely nothing “local” about either bill, and to label them such is pure fraud.
This is, however, what a group of lawmakers pushing the bills have done. And unfortunately, the bills’ sponsors include our area’s entire state House delegation: state Reps. Howard Hunter, D-Hertford; Ed Goodwin, R-Chowan; and Bobby Hanig, R-Currituck. Hunter and Goodwin are sponsors of HB 51; Hanig is a sponsor of HB 35.
The reason for this subterfuge is simple: Bills affecting fewer than 15 counties aren’t subject to the governor’s veto under state law. So the way to get around the law — and a veto — is to write two bills affecting way more than 15 counties but divide them up so that no single bill affects more than 15.
Smart, huh? Only if you believe blatantly bending the law is a smart thing to do. It makes you wonder why lawmakers would go to such lengths to do something like this.
The truth is, they’ve been trying for years to pass statewide legislation to remove public notices from newspapers. Thus far, however, they’ve been unable to overcome Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto. Cooper doesn’t believe bill sponsors’ claims that removing public notices from newspapers is just a way to give local governments more options for communicating with constituents. He believes the move is more likely designed to punish newspapers — which are paid to publish these notices — for the watchdog role they function, particularly when it comes to monitoring local government.
Regardless of whether Cooper’s right, we do wonder why lawmakers feel the need to change a communication method that’s worked for decades in favor of one where there’s absolutely no evidence of it working at all. If anything, the evidence is that very few people visit government websites to get information about what their local government is up to.
Of course, there’s nothing stopping local government from publishing these public notices on their websites now in addition to newspapers. Doing so would only increase the number of people likely to see a public notice. Letting counties take them out of newspapers, on the other hand, will only accomplish the opposite: put them in front of fewer people.
There’s no doubt passing these bills would hurt newspapers. But the reality is neither HB 51 nor HB 35 would do anything to affect any of the state’s largest newspapers; the counties where they’re based aren’t included in these “local” bills. It’s the state’s smallest newspapers — like this one — that will be affected most. Small newspapers across the country are already vanishing, leaving news deserts in the communities they currently serve. Adopting measures like HB 51 and HB 35 will only accelerate that pace.
Reps. Hunter and Goodwin have both said they believe these public notice bills will be significantly altered before they’re passed. And indeed, two changes were made last week: one keeps notices of upcoming elections in newspapers; the other keeps notices of delinquent taxpayers in newspapers. But those changes obviously aren’t enough. We respectfully ask both lawmakers to drop their sponsorship of these bills. We believe our representatives support government operating in the light. These bills are opposed to that idea.
— The Daily Advance