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Digital records bill perseveres

Electronically accessible government records have spread slowly across Mississippi, as only a handful of counties that could afford to do so have implemented the systems necessary to provide them.

One of the parts of Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann’s business reform legislative package would set guidelines for storing those electronic documents, and at the same time give them the same legal validity as paper documents.

“This would authorize but not mandate the local chancery clerks to file everything in a specific manner, which means the size of the paper, the size of the font, whatever, and includes liens, warranty deeds, everything they have to keep on file,” Hosemann said. “We want all of that filed in a consistent manner in all 82 counties, and retrievable electronically.”

House Bill 99, which would create the Uniform Real Property Electronic Recording Act, sits in the Senate Judiciary A Committee, having cleared the House unanimously. Its concept emerged from a study committee the Legislature commissioned. Its members included some of the state’s chancery clerks and real estate and title company professionals.

Madison, Hinds, Rankin and DeSoto are a few of the counties that have already created websites with searchable land rolls. A handful of other counties have plans to do the same.

“But there is no set format for all the documents to be filed and stored in,” Hosemann said. “Before that got away from us, we wanted to make sure that everybody was gathering the same information. The big issue with this one is going to be the funding, who’s going to pay for the computer. Madison has paid for theirs, and the other counties are coming along. Not all 82 counties have the wherewithal to do that.”

Hosemann admitted in an early January interview with the Mississippi Business Journal that he was unsure of how the bill would be received at the Capitol. Even though the bill does not require electronic document storage, helping it avoid the dreaded unfunded mandate label, the mere mention of the phrase would be enough to kill it during a legislative session that preceded a general election in which every lawmaker would be on the ballot.

“Clearly it will be a good guideline for the counties as they matriculate into this,” Hosemann said. “I just don’t know that there’s funding in the Legislature for it.”

The idea behind electronically available records is one of easy access and efficient searches. Realtors and title companies can spare themselves a trip to the courthouse to learn, for example, if a piece of property has a lien on it; and if it does, who the lienholder is.

But the systems are not cheap to implement. Computers, scanners and servers with enough capacity to store thousands of documents — even in the counties with small populations — are only a few of the required pieces to pull off a searchable database.

“It sounds like a great idea,” said Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, who chairs the Judiciary A Committee. “It seems to have worked well in the counties that have already implemented an electronically accessible document system, a website. Conceptually, I’m all for it.

“But the devil is always in the details,” he continued. “We’ll have to see what costs are included. That’s going to be the big issue. You have some counties that are really booming and blowing and going. Some of them, though, have their budgets already stretched so thin that buying hardware and software to set up a system like this would be totally out of the question.”

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