Our Opinion: Republicans abandon conservative principles in public notices vote

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Businesses whose survival depends on adapting to market conditions are more innovative, more nimble - and thus more effective - than government when it comes to delivering consumer services.

That conservative canon was a permanent plank in the North Carolina Republican Party platform. Until last week.

State lawmakers decided that county, city and small-town officials can do a better job of informing the public than newspapers. They decided this with all available evidence pointing to the contrary, and after our state's Democratic governor called them out for growing government at the expense of private industry.

With the passage of Senate Bill 181 on Oct. 5, local governments in Guilford County now have the option of posting public notices on their own websites instead of placing legal advertisements in newspapers, and the county can compete with local papers by charging citizens and law firms a fee to post private legals online.

Sen. Trudy Wade, R-Guilford, revived her bid to change the rules in her home county yet again after her stand-alone bill was voted down in a House committee and her amended version of House Bill 205 earned Gov. Roy Cooper's veto stamp.

This time, she hijacked Senate Bill 181, which had been introduced to amend the Winston-Salem city charter. Sen. Paul A. Lowe Jr., D-Guilford, sponsored the initial bill, but he voted against Wade's hostile takeover of his legislation.

Wade's amended draft cleared the Senate 30-16 and squeaked by in a 58-57 House vote. Because SB 181 is a local bill - a tag applied to legislation affecting 15 or fewer counties - it cannot be vetoed.

Wade argues that public notice requirements give newspapers a government subsidy. That's just another way of saying cities and counties have to pay fair market value for a private service they aren't equipped to perform. Multiple newspapers in a given county can qualify to publish the notices and have to compete on price.

Now, why would Republicans who rule the roost in Raleigh take a free-market function like publishing legal notices and shift it from private business to government?

It isn't because cities and counties can inform more people for less money. They flunk the first test and haven't even bothered to price out the second.

Wade says letting government agencies post notices online "modernizes" the process. But newspapers have been placing public notices on their websites for years. Where does the modernization come in?

A head-to-head comparison of web traffic data shows, unsurprisingly, that people visit local newspaper sites (which are updated around the clock with breaking news) a lot more often than government sites (which are largely static repositories of information).

Newspapers also publish legal notices in print, a cost that cities and counties won't bear. If governments have to update their software, upgrade web hosting platforms and hire workers to handle public notices, self-publishing could wind up costing taxpayers just as much or more than leaving it to the professionals.

When Cooper vetoed Wade's previous public notices bill, he scolded Republicans for the glaring ideological inconsistency.

Letting counties compete with newspapers for paid legal advertising on a tilted playing field, Cooper noted, "used the levers of big government to attack important institutions in our state who may disagree with them from time to time."

A Democratic governor took the correct conservative position, outflanking Republicans who love to spout pro-business bromides. Turns out the GOP's free-market flirtations don't extend to the free press.

The backstory here is that Wade, an influential third-term senator, has a long-running and well-publicized grudge against her hometown newspaper, the Greensboro News & Record. She wanted to punish the paper for unfavorable coverage.

Proponents of online-only, self-published legal notices say newspapers are becoming irrelevant, but their standard-bearer sure doesn't think so. She's willing to allow her vendetta against the News & Record to undermine her small-government rhetoric and define her entire Senate term.

Fellow GOP lawmakers were quick to play legislative lemmings and follow her lead over the cliff of hypocrisy. Republicans sold out their conservative principles to appease a powerful colleague hell-bent on abusing the power of her office.