West Virginia legislators, residents should all oppose HB 4025

From the West Virginia Press Association

The West Virginia House of Delegates is considering House Bill 4025, sponsored by Delegates Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh County, and Tony Paynter, R- Wyoming County, which would reduce the publication of legal ads for public notice in communities and counties across West Virginia in favor of placing this vital information on a government-owned website controlled by the state Auditor’s office.

Currently West Virginia State Code requires the government, companies, corporations and others to alert local residents of actions that would impact local lives. There are currently 346 such instances in West Virginia State Code.

Legal ads are required for issues from changes in air quality permits, zoning changes, landfill permits, adoptions and public comment periods on environmental issues to advertisements for bids on local work, government financial statements, delinquent taxes, property sales and election ballots.

State code says residents are entitled to a public notice by a legal ad in their local newspaper. Depending on the issue, the notice is required to be published once, twice or three times to increase awareness.

HB 4025 would greatly reduce this public notice at no proven benefit to the people of West Virginia.

The West Virginia newspaper industry thinks the legislators and state officials pushing this legislation are dangerously wrong in thinking a document placed on a government website will be seen by or serve as public notice for West Virginians.

The negative impact of HB 4025 is real there are many reasons the public should notice:

No. 1 – With a government website, residents would lose notice in their community about government and private organizations’ plans that would impact their daily lives:

– The bill would require all residents to frequently search online for legal ads. Many residents do not have access to a computer and high-speed internet.

– Quality internet service is non-existent in several areas and unreliable in many others, especially in our rural counties. These counties rely on their community newspaper to keep them informed on vital happenings in their communities.

– Many West Virginians — especially our aging population — would find online searching for legal advertisements too challenging.

– The local newspaper is the most relevant and thorough source of news and information impacting communities in West Virginia.

– Legal advertisements in local newspapers are published with related news items, drawing attention to the issue and allowing citizens to find important information affecting their lives and property.

No. 2 — There is no evidence that HB 4025 would benefit local residents; in fact, the benefit is directed to attorneys, their private clients and state agencies:

– The bill eliminates up to 66% of the cost for attorneys, companies and organizations now required by state law or a court to provide the public proper notice through publication of legal advertisements in their local newspaper.

– There is no information on readership of a statewide website as compared to West Virginia newspaper websites, which attract millions of views each year.

– HB 4025 ignores the fact the West Virginia newspaper industry has invested millions of dollars in creating and maintaining websites for their newspapers and already offers a free online legal advertisement website — wvlegals.com — for local residents.

No. 3 – HB 4025 has an apparent political element:

– A sponsor comment indicates the benefit of this bill is to financially damage his local newspaper because of political differences.

– HB 4025 could reduce the number of times an election ballot is published in the local community, giving incumbents an advantage over lesser know political challengers.

– Some members of this legislature, while promoting “jobs, jobs, jobs” and granting tax credits, funding, special project funding and site preparation for numerous industries, are targeting a newspaper industry that provides a vital public service, supports economic development in all 55 counties and represents hundreds of jobs across the state.

No. 4 – While the sponsors talk of cost savings, most legal advertisements require a publication fee from the individuals involved or listed, meaning the cost of the legal ad is reimbursed by private parties, not funded with tax dollars:

– The annual Delinquent Tax List requires each person or company to pay a publication fee to county government for the reminder published in the local newspaper.

– Most counties in West Virginia actually gain tens of thousands of dollars in revenue to fund county services from those publications fees.

– HB 4025 increases the size of state government and could move all of that revenue to state coffers and out of our counties.

– This has happened to the counties before: When the Legislature moved “notices to redeem” from the counties to the State Auditor, state government got the publication fee revenue and also created an additional $25 handling fee for each notice that generated more than $5 million in 2018-19 that could have been county revenue

No. 5 – With many regions of the state struggling economically and the Legislature suggesting major changes to the tax code and economic development efforts, this is not the time to reduce public notice for West Virginians:

– There are 21 bills addressing policies for environmental regulations, water and air quality standards, oil and gas regulations, and public hearings this session.

– There are 19 bills addressing consumer protection.

– There are 13 bills repealing existing code statutes.

– There are 14 bills on energy generate.

– The state sold 187,208 individual tracts or lots for unpaid taxes in 2019

– Governor Justice, in this 2018, State of the State, instructed the W.Va. Department of Environmental Protection for a plan to develop a system of man-made lakes in the state

– This session legislators have mentioned creating the next Lake Norman – a North Carolina public works effort in the 1960s – in southern West Virginia.

– Such actions would require use of eminent domain to take the land.

West Virginia legislators and residents should all oppose HB 4025.

Contact information for delegates representing constituents in Mason County: Delegate Jim Butler, 304-340-3199, jim.butler@wvhouse.gov; Delegate Scott Cadle, 304-340-3146, scott.cadle@wvhouse.gov; Delegate Joshua Higginbotham, 304-340-3118, joshua.higginbotham@wvhouse.gov.

From the West Virginia Press Association