If Pennsylvania House Bill 633 passes, the state will no longer mandate local and state agencies to print public notices detailing their spending in local newspapers, requiring them instead to post the notices online.
The cost-saving measure, however, is taking heat from the state’s newspaper industry as well as government transparency advocates and retiree advocacy groups who say their members rely on newspapers rather than the Internet to read government notices.
Local governments in the state currently are required to print legal notices, such as bid offers, job openings, and public meeting announcements, in local newspapers.
Newspapers in the Keystone State oppose the bill, claiming the elimination of publishing government notices will result in the loss of a major source of advertising revenue. Newspaper representatives claim the bill would cost the state $1 million a month in unemployment compensation for an estimated 1,000 laid-off journalists who would be forced out of work by the loss of newspaper income. The representatives also testified the measure wouldn’t result in significant savings for local governments.
“This allows Internet posting in lieu of buying ads in the paper for public notice,” said Illinois tech consultant John Bambenek. “The important thing is that the public is notified, not necessarily the means of notification,” he said.
‘Devil in the Details’
Sponsored by Reps. Thomas C. Creighton (R-Lancaster) and Todd Stephens (R-Horsham), the bill was sent to committee this past February. Public hearings on the bill were held in mid-May.
Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner explained his opposition to the bill in a letter to the state House Local Government Committee. “While there may be some validity to the argument that posting these notices on the Internet would save money,” Wagner noted concerns of a potential “reduction in government transparency and the inevitable loss in public confidence that it would engender.”
Wagner joins AARP, the national advocacy group representing retired people, and the Pennsylvania Bar Association in opposing H.B. 633. In his letter, Wagner argued that with H.B. 633, more than half of Pennsylvania’s senior citizens would not know about public notices posted online, though he identified transparency as his top priority.
Wagner recommended publishing government notices both online and in newspapers, an idea Creighton said would be considered as a proposed amendment to the bill, as well as another amendment requiring local governments to offer email news lists for public notice updates.
“It will hit papers hardest, but the taxpayer can accomplish the same thing with far less cost,” Bambenek said. “The devil is in the details, of course, but as long as the notice is online with an opt-in mailing list, it will be very cost-effective,” he said.
Pennsylvania economist Rick Aster says posting notices online will expose budgetary problems better, faster, and more easily.
“The traditional approach has been for municipalities to bury public notices in the fine print in the back of the newspaper, where they may go unnoticed,” he said. “HB 633 would create an incentive for municipalities to show their public notices by putting them on their Web sites, where the public would tend to see them.”
Aster says posting the notices on the Internet would make it more difficult for “a municipality to sneak something past the public. The old system of printing notices in newspapers was created to benefit the larger law firms, which could afford to pay someone to read all the notices printed in all the newspapers,” he said. “It’s a system that never really worked for anyone else, and Pennsylvania has been moving away from that approach for more than a decade. This is just another small step in the direction of open government.”
Newspapers ‘Fleecing Pennsylvania Taxpayers’
Jeff Langr, owner of Langr Software Solutions and a pro-market blogger and technology author, responded to claims made by Martin Till, publisher of The Easton Express-Times, that thousands of jobs will be lost by moving public notices from print to Internet: “If Mr. Till’s outrageous claim is to be believed, then the dying and desperate newspaper industry is guilty of fleecing Pennsylvania taxpayers with exorbitant advertising rates,” he said.
Langr says Pennsylvania’s local governments should be publishing public notices on the Internet already. “The Internet is available to virtually all Pennsylvania citizens regardless of income,” he said.
Langr adds local governments “should also renegotiate with the newspapers, who should in turn seek to back their claims of concern by offering the government and—thus the taxpayer—a better deal. Long-term, let’s have the goal of wasting less taxpayer money and paper,” he said.
Krystle Russin ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.
“Pennsylvania House Bill 633: Electronic Publication of Legal Notices,” Rep. Thomas C. Creighton, February 14, 2011: http://www.heartland.org/infotech-news.org/article/30059/Pennsylvania_HB_633_Electronic_Publication_of_Legal_Notices.html