HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – School districts, counties and other Pennsylvania governmental bodies would see their costs to place legal ads in newspapers cut by 25 percent under a bill that passed the state House on Tuesday.
The House voted 127-62 to advance a measure to link legal ad rates to a fraction of either the papers' lowest commercial rate or what papers were charging their customers on July 1, whichever is lower. Increases after June 2012 would be pegged to inflation.
Speaker of the House Keith McCall voted in favor of the bill. Representative Jerry Knowles of Schuylkill County cast a "nay" vote.
The sponsor, Rep. John Hornaman, urged members to support what he described as a compromise designed to lessen the financial impact on newspapers that need the revenue while cutting taxpayers' costs.
"This very day you can help your municipalities and help your local governments," said Hornaman, D-Erie.
The House bill was sent to the state Senate, where Republican spokesman Erik Arneson called it "a step in the right direction."
The Pennsylvania Newspaper Association estimated the bill would reduce payments to more than 175 daily and weekly papers across the state by a total of about $5 million in the first year.
Association lobbyist Deb Musselman said seven related bills have been introduced in the Legislature in recent years.
"It's been five years of assaults against newspapers' advertising, and we have many supporters at the Capitol who have told us, quite frankly, that we needed to put a compromise on the table," Musselman said.
The bill would prevent about 150 "shoppers" and similar publications without paid circulation from getting a share of the business, said Jim Haigh, with the Mid-Atlantic Community Papers Association.
"It offers no competition," Haigh said. "It offers no competition whatsoever, and we're opposed. We think that this is a Band-Aid and not a cure for the root cause of legal advertising rates."
It would not completely replace newspaper legal ads with online notices, although the papers would have to post them on a searchable Web site. About 100 state papers currently do so, at www.mypublicnotices.com.
The bill assigns to the auditor general's office the task of ensuring that newspapers cut their rates by the required amount. Some lawmakers said they doubted that was an enforceable system, given the secrecy that can surround ad rates.
The newspaper association came up with the $5 million cut figure by surveying its membership, but Musselman said antitrust laws have prevented them from trading details on precise charges.
"We don't know what the rate was yesterday, we don't know what it was last month, we don't know what it was last year," said Rep. John Evans, R-Erie. "We're talking about discounting a rate that is a mystery."
Doug Hill of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania said his organization and other groups that represent the state's governmental bodies are against the bill. He said it would not help them reach the greatest possible number of people.
"Many legislators acknowledge the drop-off in print readership and the rapid rise in online leadership. But we really aren't coming to terms with that in this legislation," Hill said.