Legislation Takes The Public Out Of Public Notices

The League of Women Voters is well known for its stellar nonpartisan adherence to voting rights, informed voting and the rights of the public to control government.

Normally, the LWV goes about its work quietly- organizing and moderating candidate debates, staging voter education events and encouraging voter registration. Never does it favor or endorse any one candidate or party over any other. Its main goal is to see that you and other citizens have full access to the rights of voting and to knowing as much as you desire about the workings of the governments you support with your taxes and your votes.

Rarely, does the LWV speak out on issues, so when it does, we should listen. Now is one of those times. The LWV of Indiana is going public to make the point that it is “distressed” that the Indiana General Assembly stands on the precipice of eliminating a longstanding legal requirement that local governments’ proposed budgets be published in newspapers before public budget hearings.

The Hoosier State Press Association, which represents and lobbies on behalf of Indiana newspapers in the Legislature, has led the fight against the budgets publication change. Being joined by an organization such as the League of Women Voters on this issue will bolster its worthy cause.

Why should those budgets be published? So you and other members of the public can have easy access to scrutinize them and raise questions if you desire, as is your right.

Indiana’s Department of Local Government Finance has persuaded the Legislature- so far- to eliminate publication of those budgets in newspapers beginning this year. It’s billed as a cost-savings measure. In 2014, the Legislature passed a law that would phase out required publications of 2016 governmental budgets as paid advertising in newspapers. And let’s be clear: We’re talking about budgets from city councils, county governmental units, school districts, townships, fire districts, libraries and other hometown governments.

The Department of Local Government Finance has supported the change by saying, heck, anyone interested in local governments’ budgets can go to the DLGF website (www.in.gov/dlgf/2338.htm) and find that information. Yes, you can find budget information there, we would add, after a long series of clicks and dead ends amid a plethora of information and menus that do not encourage a casual user to dig in.

It’s a safe bet that only governmental officials, wonkish newspaper folks and political animals now access that site. The public? Not so much. In fact, the LWV says that 2,258 unique visitors go to that page each week. To that, LWV compares nearly 4 million Hoosiers who read newspapers in Indiana each week, the same newspapers in which governments have long been required to publish their budgets.

It’s touchy for newspapers to argue in favor of such public notices because, as advertising, they do bring in revenue. And while no newspaper wants to turn down revenue, the real issue is that your newspaper- this one or any other- is a better format for you than an obscure government website that few know of.

Holding a printed budget in your hand allows you to read, reread, analyze, scrutinize and pass it on to another person. It is more democratic to people of all means, free in libraries and less than a cup of coffee at newsstands. In thousands of homes, the newspaper containing a public notice of a budget proposal is already being delivered and can be easily be passed from person to person, over breakfast, in the easy chair, while watching TV.

To preserve required publication of these budgets in newspapers, the Legislature must reverse- correct- the elimination of this public notice advertising requirement this year. The current legislative session began Jan. 6.

If you agree with newspapers, HSPA and the League of Women Voters that you want to continue to be able to find such budget information in your newspaper, let your state representative and senator know. Act now, because if the issue is not remedied in the 2015 legislative session, the damage will be done. And you will be the loser.

(This column originally appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star.)