The state House on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to legislation that will let the state's largest cities publish their legal notices online rather than spending money to buy newspaper ads.

Tuesday's voice vote came after Rep. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, agreed to alter his original proposal so that opt-out provision applies only to cities with a population of 100,000 or more. That helps blunt opposition from rural lawmakers who have worried openly about both Internet access of their constituents as well as the financial viability of hometown papers.

All counties, however, would be able to scrap the need for newspaper-published legal notices.

The future of HB 2533, however, remains in doubt.

House leadership did not call for a final roll-call vote after Tuesday's preliminary approval. Petersen needs to line up 31 votes in the 60-member chamber, no matter how many -- or how few -- lawmakers are on the floor to advance the bill to the Senate.

Tuesday's debate showed how sharply divided lawmakers are over the issue. And those divisions are not strictly along party lines.

Petersen said there is little need for newspaper publication in a state where 94 percent of Arizonans have access to -- though do not necessarily have at home -- the Internet. And he questioned whether publication of a notice in agate type, which is less than one-tenth of an inch high, and often in a small-circulation paper, really is going to keep the public informed.

And he chided those who say 94 percent potential access in a state of more than six million residents is insufficient to ensure public notice, putting newspaper circulation at "18 percent and declining.''

But Rep. Bruce Wheeler, D-Tucson, called the legislation premature.

"I just don't think we're at a stage yet where we can ensure the public notices reach everyone,'' he said. Beyond that, Wheeler said newspaper publication is "archivable,'' meaning proof that notice was given to the public is preserved, in black and white.

And Rep. Ethan Orr, R-Tucson, said his own prior experience as a Tucson city employee convinces him there needs to be outside accountability -- in this case, newspaper publication -- to ensure that government has provided the proper notice.

Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, however, said lawmakers need to look at the issue from the perspective on the cost the publication requirements are imposing on taxpayers. And he called the mandate to buy newspaper advertising "what is little more than corporate welfare to newspapers.''

"Cities and towns have to take money they could spend on schools and parks and spend it on absurd notices that nobody even reads,'' Kavanagh said.

Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, noted that the legislation does not mandate that cities and counties give up newspaper publication of their notices but simply provides and option. He thinks that's a good idea.

"It will cause the publishing companies that currently have a monopoly ... to maybe rethink their pricing structure,'' Thorpe said, offering to print the notices for less.

Rep. Lisa Otondo, D-Yuma, openly worried about whether eliminating the publishing requirements for all counties and some cities will drive newspapers out of business.

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