Hiding In Plain Site

by Curt Kovener

Have you checked how much any of your units of local government want to spend next year? It’s right there for you to see on a web site, you know.
In 2014, then-Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed a law passed by the Indiana legislature that eliminated newspaper notice of local government budgets. Before the law was enacted, all local government units in Indiana— from cities & towns and counties to libraries and fire districts districts— were required to publish their annual budget proposals and estimated tax rates in a local newspaper.
Now they are only required to post them on the website of the state’s Department of Local Government Finance (DLGF), which was the main proponent of the new law.
Each year since the new law passed, the Hoosier State Press Association (HSPA) has asked the agency for traffic data for the Budget Notices for Local Government page on its website. To its credit, DLGF voluntarily provided the following numbers:
Last half of 2014– 4,600 unique visitors
Last half of 2015– 5,500 unique visitors
Last half of 2016– 7,000 unique visitors
In case you’re wondering, those aren’t daily or weekly or monthly traffic figures. Those numbers reflect the TOTAL visits to the page for each entire six-month period.
For comparison, for the first three months of 2017 this newspaper’s website that you are reading right now, crothersvilletimes.com where we place all pubic notice ads found in print had 4,745 unique visitors, according to statistics found on our Google Analytics page. A six-month extrapolation would have your “best little newspaper in town” approaching 10,000 visitors.
And as puny as the DLGF’s public notice visits are they actually overstate the number of Indiana citizens who now receive notice of their government’s proposed budgets.
First, like most websites a significant portion of DLGF’s website traffic is generated by Google search referrals from people who live outside of the state. So the unique visitor totals provided by DLGF are inflated by the incidence of non-residents who visit the page. And of course, public notice laws aren’t designed for the benefit of non-residents.
Second, DLGF directs local public officials to check its website every year to make sure their budgets are posted, according to HSPA Executive Director Steve Key. Since Indiana has 2,000+ local government units, it also suggests that much of the non-foreign traffic to DLGF’s budget page may very well come from government officials.
One is left to wonder: Has anyone in Indiana who doesn’t work for the government or media read any of the proposed budgets submitted by local government units since the new law took effect in 2014? Have you?
Meanwhile, consider that HSPA’s American Opinion Research study in 2014 found that 3.8 million Hoosiers read at least one newspaper per week. It’s also worth noting that budget notices are almost impossible to miss when they’re published in a newspaper. At a minimum, they generally occupy several columns on a page and contain bold text and lines of numbers that jump out at the average reader.
So when Mike Pence signed the law eliminating newspaper notice of proposed budgets, the state of Indiana traded a medium that by its very nature promotes effective notice for one that does not. And it swapped 3.8 million potential readers for, at best, a handful of highly motivated citizens. If you wanted to wrest control of local tax and budget processes from regular citizens in order to hand it to politicians, lobbyists and activists, this would be a great way to start.
This isn’t the way public notice is supposed to work.
(Our thanks to Richard Karpel of the Public Notice Resource Center for the research for this column.)