LINCOLN — Nebraska's newspapers have been performing a vital public service to the state's residents, and it is well past time they are compensated fairly for their work, the State Governmental Affairs Committee was told Monday.
The testimony came during a 45-minute hearing on LB840, a bill which proposes a 10 percent increase in the rate newspapers are allowed to charge for public notices. The increase would take effect over a two-year period.
The last time the Legislature allowed for such an increase was in 1996.
That's simply not fair, the bill's sponsor, Sen. Tom Brewer, told the committee.
"This is a pretty modest request. Property taxes, insurance, electricity, everything that a business needs to operate, have gone up quite a bit in the last 25 years," Sen. Brewer said.
Cedar County News co-publisher Peggy Year was one of five people testifying in favor of the bill.
She told the committee operating expenses have increased tremendously in the past 26 years, while the legal publication rate has remained unchanged.
"Postal rates have increased 42 percent since the last rate increase back in 1996," she told the committee. The Postal Service has already notified newspapers they will receive another 10 percent increase in 2023.
Rural Nebraska newspapers already face a lot of challenges because of population decline and the changing media landscape, they shouldn't also be forced to use 26-year-old rates to publish state-mandated legal notices, Year said.
Blair Enterprise Publisher Mark Rhoades agreed with Year.
"It’s doubtful you can find any other business that has not adjusted its prices since 1996 that would still be in business today," he told the committee.
Two groups that would be affected the most by this bill — the Nebraska League of Municipalities, and the Nebraska Association of County Officials — also testified at the hearing.
Elaine Menzel, who serves as the Legal Counsel for NACO, told senators while the bill would mean her members would incur more cost, her group feels the bill is fair, and NACO does not oppose it.
Christy Abraham, legal counsel for the Nebraska League of Municipalities, said her group also sees benefits with the bill and has also decided not to oppose it.
After Menzel and Abraham testified, Sen. Tom Brandt asked if property taxes on the buildings which house the newspapers have gone up much since 1996, and was told they have indeed gone up, as well.
In conjunction with the rate increase, the bill also helps to modernize public notices as it requires all public notices, after first appearing in print, to be uploaded to a central website operated by the newspapers for digital distribution at no cost to the state or consumers. Last fall, the Nebraska Press Association launched such a site — NePublicNotices.com.
The site provides a digital archive of Nebraska public notices that allows people to see all public notices in one place instead of having to scour the Internet in search of different newspaper or governmental entities to find legal notices, said Nebraska Press Association Executive Director Dennis DeRossett.
The Nebraska Press Association, Menzel said, has made great strides to make it easier for people to see public notices with this new website.
Public notices are a conduit of information from government and the courts to the public, Sen. Brewer said. This new website makes that connection even easier, he said.
In his closing arguments to the committee, Sen. Brewer said newspapers play a vital role in rural Nebraska.
"The soul of most of these little towns is their newspaper. In these small towns its still a piece of paper that they read that really matters to them," Sen. Brewer said. "That’s how the people communicate."