14 April 2010

Committee action, Apr. 14: HB 650, HB 1212

HB 650 by Rep. John Bel Edwards would compel statewide elected officials to resign from office if they officially filed for qualification to run for another office in or out of state, or made a “public announcement” to more than 500 people to that effect. Edwards told the House and Governmental Affairs Committee that campaigning for something else distracted from their duties and underlings would end up really running things, not those elected by the people.

One of the underlings, former state senator and current First Assistant Secretary of State Tom Schedler, said he considered the bill discriminatory since it applied only to a few positions and argued by Edwards’ logic it should be applied to all positions. He also said from his office’s perspective, it would be difficult to enforce the announcement provision.

Edwards said Schedler only reinforced the argument when he admitted campaigning took a lot of time. On a near party-line vote with Democrats in favor, it was defeated.

HB 1212 by Rep. Jeff Arnold would create a local option for governing authorities to decide whether they wanted to contract out the publishing of legal notices (he actually introduced a substitute that removed the original provision of this also applying statewide). It would not require halting paying a newspaper to publish these things, nor did it prevent them from doing so if an authority stopped paying for publishing. He said it would save money for local authorities at a time citizens were facing similar budgetary constraints.

Opponents argued that with the publication of these notices by another source this created a greater sense of independence and lent these to be archived and accessible, such as through the Louisiana Press Association site that would do, they claimed, a better job of aggregation for which the bill they argued didn’t address. This site already had $500,000 in software and cost $60,000 a year to operate, therefore showing good value for government money. They argued people without Internet access, which they claimed was declining around Baton Rouge, would be deprived, and that it would require too much proactive behavior from the populace to go to the Internet rather than pick up a paper. They argued that newspapers promoted “notice” to “access,” the difference being newspapers got delivered. Also, there was the risk of the government notice site being hacked.

Several committee members had questions and comments about them. Rep. Tony Ligi didn’t see newspapers providing that good of a service in any event on this account, so maybe a switch might be good. Rep. Patrick Connick said the real issue was removing revenue from the press. With a declining press, this money was important to allow a free press to continue functioning.

This led Rep. Greg Cromer to ask how much revenue legal notices provided, which turned out in the large majority of cases to be very small because governments set the rates so low. Few if any papers would be put out of business. However, he said he was concerned with papers perhaps going out of business. Indeed, the acting publisher of the Louisiana Weekly claimed she would go out of business without legal notice publishing.

Rep. Brett Geymann tried to figure out how much savings would result from the bill. Witnesses said there may not be any, but none of them seemed willing or able to give firm amounts. This irked Rep. Mert Smiley who complained that he couldn’t get a straight answer, except from Tom Ed McHugh of the Louisiana Municipal Association who used figures back when he was Mayor-President of East Baton Rouge Parish a decade ago. Cromer said Slidell spent between $10-20,000 on this.

Rep. Nancy Landry noted the bill could charge a fee, which concerned her. But Arnold explained this did not apply for legal notice users. He also noted it was local option, so if there would not be savings, local authorities would not pursue it.

In closing, Arnold pointed out access to the Internet was much greater than subscriptions to newspaper, and expanding. Local option would take care of that where there wasn’t access. He also said state law requiring archiving. Also, backup provisions were present in the bill in case of hacking or disasters. And, it was not up to government to provide jobs in the newspaper sector through subsidization; it was their problem, but local governments would be best to decide whether they should provide that.

Chariman Rep. Rick Gallot asked for deferral of the substitute bill, and when voted on that motion carried 10-7 with all Democrats present in favor.

If you keep talking, he might switch his side again
Gallot jested to witnesses after Cromer, who had said Connick’s remarks had reminded him about the importance of a free and independent press, admitted he had been for the bill but if it resulted in small papers going out of business he might now be against it.

It’s news to me
Gallot, when Schedler said according to rumor that both House Speaker Jim Tucker and Senate Pres. Joel Chaisson were going to run for the unexpired term of lieutenant governor; Gallot also has been rumored as a candidate for this.

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