Feb 04, 2013

Opposition to Bill Removing Public Notices from Newspapers

By Megan Strickland
For Reporting Texas and The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN — Government transparency advocates are aligning against legislation that would remove public notices from local newspapers across the state.

Freshman Rep. Jonathan Stickland, a Bedford Republican, is proposing that governments be allowed to post notices about meetings, taxes and policies on their websites instead. Stickland said the measure, House Bill 335, would save governments money and that newspaper notices are no longer effective.

“The law that requires public notices to be printed in a newspaper made sense back in the horse and buggy days,” Stickland said in a recent written statement announcing the bill. “It’s outrageous that taxpayers have to pay twice — once for the ad space and then again for a copy of the newspaper — just to get information that can be provided for free.”

Critics of the proposal say Stickland’s bill would make public information harder to find among thousands of websites statewide. Jim Moser, chairman of the Texas Press Association’s legislative committee, pointed out that citizens in Harris County would have to consult the sites of 496 units of government that levy taxes.

“That’s overwhelming,” Moser said.

For decades, state law has required that state agencies, counties, cities, school districts and other entities publish public notices in a “newspaper of general circulation” in their jurisdictions. The notices include everything from meeting agendas to requests for bids on projects.

Papers have to publish each notice at their lowest rate for classified advertising. The press association collects the notices on its website, creating a statewide archive that is independently maintained.

The annual cost of publishing notices statewide isn’t known. In a 2012 survey by the Texas Public Purchasing Association, 33 government units that included counties, school districts and cities said they paid about $498,000 on newspaper notices.

Stickland cited a 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center showing that 23 percent of Americans read a print newspaper the previous day.

“We spend a ton of money on posting these newspaper notices every year, and we don’t feel like there’s any purpose to it,” said Stickland’s chief of staff, Tony McDonald. “Newspaper subscriptions are declining, and even if they weren’t, it’s not the sort of thing people read.”

Similar proposals stalled in both the House and Senate in 2011.

“We’re trying to save taxpayers money,” McDonald said. “We understand some newspapers are going to take a hit. It’s a government subsidy they would lose, but the law is not in place to give newspapers money. The law is in place to increase transparency. If there is a better way to do it at a cheaper cost, we want to do that.”

Donnis Baggett, executive vice president of the Texas Press Association, says the issue isn’t lost revenue at newspapers, but lost public information.

“Public notice usually makes up 1 to 5 percent of newspaper revenue,” Baggett said. “I don’t think we’d lose any newspapers if we didn’t have public notice.”