RALEIGH — Gov. Roy Cooper has vetoed a bill that would change the way local governments issue public notices and referred to the measure as an attack on newspapers. It was Cooper’s eighth veto this year.
In his veto message, Cooper, a Democrat, said the Republican-led General Assembly “used the levers of big government to attack important institutions in our state who may disagree with them from time to time.”
The bill went through significant changes before reaching his desk.
House Bill 205 originally adjusted worker’s compensation benefits for prison inmates injured while working for the state. Cooper said he would have supported the first version of the bill.
As it moved through the legislature, amendments were added requiring newspapers to treat their carriers as employees. The guy you see hawking papers in town or tossing a newspaper in your driveway almost certainly is an independent contractor, because it’s too expensive for publishers to hire him and offer health insurance and other benefits.
In the form that passed, H.B. 205 would change the amount of money government bodies have to pay news publications for legal notices, as required by law. It also sets new circulation requirements for newspapers used for government advertising.
The bill specifically allows government bodies in Guilford County to publish legal notices and surplus sale ads for the public on their own websites, provided they’re easily accessible. The county may post legal ads on its own website in exchange for a fee to supplement teacher salaries and other county needs.
The Guilford County exception was introduced as an amendment by Sen. Trudy Wade, a Republican from the county.
The governor expressed concern that legislators were purposefully trying to punish North Carolina newspapers, whose editorial boards have often been critical of Republican actions in recent years.
“Unfortunately, this legislation is another example of that misguided philosophy meant to specifically threaten and harm the media,” the release stated. “Legislation that enacts retribution on the media threatens a free and open press, which is fundamental to our democracy.”
Wade hit back with a statement of her own. “Gov. Cooper’s veto of bipartisan legislation eliminating special carve-outs for the newspaper industry makes it clear his (No. 1) priority is brown-nosing those who cover him.”
The N.C. Press Association’s executive director, Phil Lucey, told Carolina Journal his organization supported the governor’s veto and “the public’s right to know.”
The newspaper industry group had called the provision classifying newspaper carriers as employees a job killer. A NCPA statement in June took a harsher view after the final version of the bill was passed.
“The late-night wrangling to make this bill pass should shock any citizen who believes in representative democracy and is a perfect example of lawmaking at its worst,” the statement read. “There is only one winner here, and that’s the senator who sponsored the bill and forced this issue at all cost.”
It’s no secret many local newspapers are mere shells of their former selves, and the industry continuous to struggle in the digital age.
John Robinson, a former editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, told Carolina Journal that print ads may not be the cheapest way for governments to inform the public, but it supports local journalism.
Robinson took issue with Wade’s amendment.
“What I don’t like is that a Guilford County legislator who has quarreled with the newspaper has singled out Guilford County for her law,” Robinson said. “It appears unfair to newspapers here — one of which said it would cause [it] to go out of business — and seems personal.”
Indeed, the front-page headline last week in the weekly Jamestown News of Guilford County read, “Trudy Wade’s bill will close Jamestown News. Governor’s veto is our last hope.”
Will Rierson is a staff writer for Carolina Journal.