An Alabama House bill endorsed by Lagniappe aimed at easing the rules required to run legal advertisements has made it through its first committee session. Now, HB 102 will be reviewed further by the Government Services subcommittee chaired by the bill’s sponsor, State Rep. Chris Pringle (R-Mobile).

HB 102 aims to remove language in existing legislation requiring a “publications class postal permit” for any newspaper attempting to sell public notice advertisements from municipal governments, probate courts, local attorneys and other sources.

Those ads, which are required by law, often end up generating substantial revenue for publications not only in Alabama, but across the country. To obtain the permit, a publication must meet certain criteria, one of which is that more than 50 percent of their circulation is paid. For free newspapers such as Lagniappe, that presents a significant obstacle.

However, the Alabama Press Association and its member papers, many of whom already receive income from the sale of legal ads, claim the changes to the current law would only make it possible for a single paper to “skirt” rules others had to follow.

Alabama State House

Alabama State House

During a State Government Committee hearing yesterday in Montgomery, HB 102 was one of several bills discussed. There Beth Marietta Lyons, a lobbyist paid by Lagniappe, told the committee free newspapers will be a more common business model as print media continues to change.

According to Lyons, the current papers offering legal advertisements in the Mobile area are the Mobile Press-Register, the Mobile Beacon and the Call News in Citronelle, two of which she said could be easily be challenged by someone who missed a legal notification because of the publication’s limited circulation or lack of distribution area.

“(Lagniappe) would like to compete for the business to do legal notices as well,” Lyons told the committee members. “The city of Mobile would like to have another choice. They’re a not going to use (the Mobile Beacon and the Call News) for fear of those actions being challenged in court.”

Because of that fear, the Press-Register has remained one of the only viable options for those purchasing legal advertisements in Mobile and according to Lyons, is the most expensive option.

In fact, all seven members of the Mobile City Council signed a resolution this week supporting HB 102, saying it would “provide local governments with publication options to meet the legal requirements of advertisement” and “to exercise greater fiscal responsibility with taxpayer dollars.”

“I would ask you to consider solving a problem for us so the city of Mobile and its citizens, who pay for these, have a better use of their money and can allow somebody else to have competition in the field,” Lyons told the committee members.

Kenneth Boone, an APA board member and the owner of Tallapoosa Publishers, Inc., spoke in opposition to HB 102 saying the “current method works” and “there’s nothing standing in the way of any publication that wants to become qualified.”

“Industries are regulated because there should be a level of assurance for customers. The rules are there to follow and they’re there for a reason,” Boone said. “I can imagine a free distribution newspaper or a high school newspaper would not be an acceptable method of informing the public.”

Some members of the committee took issue with the position taken by Boone, including State Rep. Ed Henry (R-Hartselle) who said the point of legal advertisement was to inform the public, not to “subsidize papers.”

“You believe it serves the public interest better if the state or county pays for a public notice, and then you charge the public to look at that notice … as opposed to them having the the ability to look at that free?” Henry asked Boone.

Boone said all of his publications also place legal ads on their respective websites, which can be viewed free of charge. He also said that at 25 cents per copy, his publications, “might as well be free.” However, when asked what percentage of the profits from his five publications could be attributed to legal ads, Boone said he’d “never looked at a percentage of profit” but could provide that information to the committee.

Henry said either way, for most papers across the country the percentage is “big.”

“To me the purpose of public notices are to inform the population of what’s going on,” Henry said. “If they can do that without charging them for it, that’s beautiful. That’s a great idea if all it takes is removing some archaic language. It seems like a no brainer to me.”

Locally Willie Gray, publisher of the Call News, also spoke out against HB 102, traveling to Montgomery to lobby against the effort Wednesday. Lagniappe’s publisher Rob Holbert also addressed the committee.

After hearing from proponents and opponents of the bill, legislators agreed to carry it over to a later session with the Government Services Subcommittee to “work out the issues.”

State Government Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Tuggle (R-Alexander City), said, “if there’s a route to go to a local bill (for the Mobile delegation), that would be the simplest thing to do.” Lyon’s told the committee she already had plan to present the issue in a local bill.

No date has been set for the next hearing.