By Dennis Hetzel, Executive Director

Dennis Hetzel

I will be in Washington next week for the Government Affairs Conference of the Newspaper Association Managers and will be visiting the offices of seven Ohio members of the House of Representatives and both of our U.S. senators.

My main topic will be the Postal Service, especially the sweetheart deal recently approved that allows the giant, direct-mail company Valassis to unfairly compete with newspapers for pre-print business. I have talking points, but concrete examples and anecdotes from the real world are the most powerful.  Email me at dhetzel@ohionews.org if you have any specifics you would like to share on the impact of what the Postal Service is doing or planning to do. If any information you share is confidential, let me know, and I will use it judiciously in that manner.

Also, please let me know if there are other federal issues you would like me to raise. For example, there is the FCC’s cross-ownership ban, which may be rescinded in the 20 largest markets.  Do-not-track legislation could make it harder to monetize your digital offerings. During the last go-round with the “grand bargain” regarding the fiscal cliff, there was some early discussion about limiting the tax deduction for sales and marketing expenses – a really bad idea.

Lame-duck session brings issues of concern

Closer to home, at the Ohio Statehouse, we are actively engaged on two troubling items related to House Bill 247, which now is in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

We are trying to remove a measure that would allow the owners of self-storage units to essentially end-run the current requirement of two public notices. This could be replaced by a standard that satisfies the notice if “three independent bidders” show up when there is an auction of private property due to unpaid rent. (Perhaps you have seen the “Storage Wars” show on the A&E network.) I am not making this up. Self-storage unit owners are trying to get legislation such as this passed around the country. That’s not a public notice by any reasonable definition. Frankly, we face an uphill battle to get this removed. It would be helpful to contact any Judiciary Committee members you know before next Tuesday.  Here is a link to my testimony on this measure.

We also want to block an amendment that the Ohio Recorders’ Association is seeking that, in essence, would allow county recorders to charge a fee to print out a document from a government website. They are trying to get around recent rulings by the State Auditor and Attorney General that the public records statute does not allow these fees.

This measure essentially opens the door to the use of public records as profit centers. Note that the recorders already receive fees when many documents are filed. The real issue, I think, is that they do not have control of their funding, and some counties are not providing resources that allow the recorders to make records available online to all citizens as the law requires. Some of these offices, particularly in the regions of the state dealing with oil and gas drilling rights, are swamped. There should be a better solution than levying new fees on public records.

We have noted that once the item is available for viewing there is zero additional cost to the county to allow people to print. The notion of paying a governmental body to print something on your own printer should be hard for anyone to swallow. Meanwhile, digital public records can deflect a lot of time-consuming requests for governmental agencies. Once the document is uploaded, there is no work left for the recorder’s office to ever do with it.

The measure also fails as a practical matter. There probably are easy ways that even a moderately computer-literate person could circumvent this and still get the document.   The result is that it would make citizens do more work or pay to download records that are “their” records. Government is the caretaker of public records, not the owner.

Here is an excellent editorial The Cincinnati Enquirer published on the printing fee today.

This amendment may be offered Tuesday as part of HB 247. Contact with Judiciary Committee members from ONA members before that time could be very helpful.

I also have been evaluating the proposal to reform Ohio’s lobbying disclosure and ethics laws. There are some real improvements in terms of transparency and overall access to this information.  I have concerns about some of the dollar amounts that trigger disclosure along with some other questions about how gift regulations will work.  (I understand, by the way, that there are 20 states that have no gift disclosure requirements at all.) I do not expect this bill to make it through the Legislature before year end, but you never know. I welcome comments from ONA members.

A looming concern is whether the governor’s plan to cut state income tax rates will include elimination of sales tax exemptions, such as the one for newspaper sales. It is important for ONA members to mention our opposition to this idea as paths cross with state representatives and state senators.

As always, please let me know if you have questions or need more information.  And send me a quick email if you make contact with any legislators.

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