HSPA flags, fights public notice bills during session


One key bill defeated, another passed

The two key bills for the Hoosier State Press Association in the 2021 Indiana General Assembly both concerned public notices. HSPA successfully defeated H.B. 1498, which would have allowed government units to eliminate the publication requirement for public notices. Our luck wasn’t as good with S.B. 332, which will allow government entities to move multi-run notices from the newspaper to “official websites” after publication of the first notice.

Following is a rundown of all the bills HSPA flagged concerning public notices:

H.B. 1498 – Rep. Doug Miller, R-Elkhart, authored this bill to allow government units to move their public notices from newspapers to government websites. HSPA met with Rep. Miller to express its opposition and explain that HSPA planned to propose legislation in 2022 to modernize the state’s public notice policy.

Miller decided to move the bill forward. It was passed by the House Government and Regulatory Reform Committee, chaired by Rep. Miller.
The bill died on the House floor for lack of a Constitutional majority, 46-45. HSPA and The Corydon group lobbied hard to block Miller’s path to 51 votes and he did not call the bill down for another vote before the deadline for passage out of the House.

S.B. 332 – Sen. Jim Buck, R-Kokomo, authored this bill to alter public notice publication requirements. The original bill gives local government units the option on notices that currently require more than one publication to move the subsequent notices after the first is published in a local newspaper to and “official website.” While the bill focused on government notices, it also included sheriff’s sales (mortgage foreclosures and enforcement of civil judgments).

Buck told HSPA this was his attempt to force the Indiana newspaper industry to take a “small step” in transitioning to digital public notices. HSPA informed him of its pledge to the four caucus leaders to present this year a proposal to modernize the state policy on public notices with a transition from print-centric to digital centric. HSPA asked Buck to move the effective date of S.B.332 to mid-2022. He declined to do so, saying newspapers needed to be forced to make a transition.

The bill was approved by the Senate Local Government Committee, chaired by Buck. HSPA did not try to defeat the bill because it held out hope to work on the bill with the author. The Senate passed S.B. 332 with a 39-7 vote.
The House sponsor was Rep. Doug Miller, R-Elkhart. HSPA pushed for either a delay in the bill’s effective date or the removal of the sheriff’s sales from the bill since those notices were not paid for by taxpayer dollars, but were included in the cost of the buyers of properties auctioned.

Miller said he would accept an HSPA amendment if Buck agreed. Buck refused to budge on the effective date, but agreed to the removal of the sheriff’s sales. HSPA testified in favor of the bill with that amendment during the House Government and Regulatory Reform Committee hearing of the bill. Miller chairs that committee, which approved the bill as amended.

The Indiana Bankers Association were unhappy about the committee amendment and pushed Miller and Buck to add the sheriff’s sales language back into the bill.

Miller then indicated he might amend the bill on the House floor to put sheriffs’ sales back into the bill contrary to what had been agreed. HSPA and its contracted lobbying firm, The Corydon Group, worked hard for the agreement to hold. Following a Republican caucus discussion on the bill, Miller did not offer his toxic amendment. Rep. Kris Campbell, D-West Lafayette, did successfully offer two small amendments. The bill then passed in the House 93-0 after HSPA signaled that they supported the bill.

Unfortunately, Buck decided to file a dissent, which triggers a conference committee. He told HSPA he has questions about the impact of Campbell’s amendment concerning prohibition of social media platforms being named official government websites. He also did not close the door to adding sheriffs’ sales back in, but indicated that if he put them back in he might alter the effective date.

Buck asked the other conferee, Miller, Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, and Rep. Campbell to sign a conference committee report that removed Campbell’s amendments and restored the sheriff’s sales into the bill. When Sen. Lanane and Rep. Campbell would not sign, they were removed from the committee – replaced by Rep. Wendy McNamara, R-Evansville; and Sen. Rick Niemeyer. R-Lowell, who did sign.

The Senate then passed S.B. 332 with a 35-14 vote, and the House barely passed it, 51-40. Gov. Eric Holcomb signed the bill into law on April 29.
S.B. 409 – HSPA worked with author Sen. Rick Niemeyer, R-Crown Point, on this bill concerning the annual financial report published in newspapers by townships.

Sen. Niemeyer wanted to address the fact that townships were the only local government entity required to publish a list of all expenditures, but the original version of the bill went beyond that – eliminating the publication requirement of the entire township annual financial report.
Once HSPA was able to explain the effect of the language, Niemeyer agreed to amend the bill to reflect his intent. The amended bill then was passed by the Senate Local Government Committee, chaired by Sen. Jim Buck, R-Kokomo.

HSPA testified in favor of the bill during its Senate committee hearing and the House Government and Regulatory Reform Committee, chaired by Rep. Doug Miller, R-Elkhart. The Senate passed the bill 49-0 and the House passed it 64-24. The House sponsor was Rep. Hal Slager, R-Schererville.

S.B. 409 did go into a conference committee to work out other issues in the township bill, but the conference committee report was passed

unanimously by both chambers. Gov. Eric Holcomb signed the bill into law on April 29.

S.B. 188 – Sen. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, authored this bill to bring Indiana’s unclaimed property statute more in line with other states through a model created by the Uniform Code Commission. The original language would have replaced the publication of unclaimed property lists with a couple of small notices telling the public where the list could be found on the Internet.

At the bill’s hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing chaired by Sen. Liz Brown, R-Fort Wayne, HSPA raised its concern with the elimination of the publication requirement. The Indiana Bankers Association, Indiana Chamber of Commerce, and representatives of new Attorney General Todd Rokita also opposed the bill, although the AG’s office said it supported the elimination of the publication of unclaimed property lists.

Sen. Koch followed up with a Zoom call with interested parties. HSPA was able to point out that the AG’ director of unclaimed property testified that Indiana’s return rate of property to rightful owners was 64 percent, compared to 48 percent for rest of the nation.

Koch offered a amendment restoring the publication requirement, but only for one publication not two, in the follow up hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Koch also fixed language clarifying the status of documents as public records that HSPA requested.

When the bill was in conference committee, HSPA discovered language that would have allowed all records concerning the unclaimed property program be deemed confidential. Both the AG’s office and Sen. Koch agreed that was not the intent and deleted the language.

The conference committee report was approved by the Senate 46-2 and the House, 87-0. In the House, the bill passed through the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. Jerry Torr, R-Carmel. The House sponsor was Rep. John Young, R-Franklin. Governor Eric Holcomb signed the bill into law on April 29.

H.B. 1395 – Authored by Rep. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville, this bill was the Indiana Department of Natural Resources bill. Rep. Eberhart connected HSPA with the DNR’s David Bausman, who said the change from publishing to posting DNR rules was for cost savings. He did say there were only eight or ten such publications a year.

During the bill’s hearing before the House Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Eberhart, Bausman did testify that the savings were minimal. HSPA testified on the reduction of access to contemplated rule changes for the public, but the committee was unmoved.

Due to other issues with the bill, H.B. 1395 died in the conference committee phase of the legislative session.

S.B. 35 – Authored by Sen. Erin Houchin, R-Salem, this bill concerned several statutes applicable only to Lake and St. Joseph counties. HSPA had a concern about a public notice provision and talked to Sen. Houchin. She was able to answer HSPA’s concern.

The bill moved through the Senate, 47-0 and House, 93-0. Gov. Eric Holcomb signed it into law on April 8.

S.B. 283 – This bill authored by Sen. Fady Qaddoura, D-Indianapolis, concerned the creation of a redistricting commission. HSPA had a question about the senator’s intent for public notice (Open Door Law notice or public notice advertising). Before HSPA could get a clarification, the bill died without a hearing in the Senate Elections Committee, chaired by Sen. Jon Ford, R-Terre Haute.

(Note: The June issue of The Indiana Publisher will include a wrap-up of legislation HSPA followed concerning public access to meetings and records.)