House Bill 1498 will affect gov't transparency

There is no doubt that Indiana residents believe in government transparency. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about our legislators in Indianapolis.

The Indiana House of Representatives is expected to consider House Bill 1498 this week, a measure that will do away with a longstanding check on government – the publishing of public notices in newspapers beginning in the summer of 2022. The measure would give local government units the alternative to publish notices on a website controlled by the government unit, severely damaging the checks and balances currently in place.

The idea of public notices has been popular long before the advent of newspapers. The earliest known form of a public notice – the Code of Hammurabi – was carved on a pillar in Babylon some 1,700 years before the birth of Christ. In 1665, the London Gazette began carrying notices from the English King’s Court and public officials of London and outlaying regions.

Through colonial times, state governments used newspapers to publish notices and the new federal government followed suit in 1789. In fact, the acts of the first session of the U.S. Congress required the Secretary of State to publish all “bills, orders, resolutions and congressional votes” in at least three publicly available newspapers.

In Indiana, the use of public notices predates statehood. Territorial Gov. William Henry Harrison offered $500 to a printer who would start a newspaper in Vincennes so he could disseminate the laws of the territory. Elihu Stout took him up on the challenge and published the first edition of the Indiana Gazette on July 4, 1804, more than a decade before Indiana became a state.

Local government advocates believe allowing governmental units an option on communicating with its constituents will result in savings to taxpayers. What they fail to point out is that it also will reduce the chances that Hoosiers will see the public notices, thus reducing or eliminating transparency the public now has.

A 2017 survey found out that 63 percent of Hoosiers want public notices to be published in their local newspaper even when the question noted that it could cost government units several thousands of dollars. That same survey determined that the public would be 60 percent less likely to read a public notice if published on a government website, rather than in a newspaper.

The government advocates also fail to mention that newspapers can’t arbitrarily decide what to charge government units to publish their notices. The General Assembly capped what newspapers can charge state and local governments in 1927. The Hoosier State Press Association estimates all public notices published in a year cost the average adult Hoosier just $1.06 of their tax dollars, a small fraction of the millions now budgeted on the state and local levels.

There is no doubt that today’s technology was not dreamed of by the founding fathers of both the nation and the state. Newspaper publishers recognize that technology has changed drastically. In fact, Indiana law requires that news-papers, in addition to the publication of notices in print, must post their public notices on their websites at no additional cost to the government unit. Additionally, the HSPA has been collecting notices from its 150 member newspapers and posting them on indianapublicnotices.com, again at no cost to the state or local government units or anyone using the site.

Officials at the HSPA have reached out to the leadership of the four legislative caucuses and committed to bring the Legislature a comprehensive modernization of the state’s public notice policy for consideration in the 2022 legislative session.

HB 1498 begins and ends the public discussion of an important public policy that is an essential element of our democracy. The question deserves more thought and more input to craft a policy addressing all the elements of effective public notice, which have been essential to the democratic process for centuries.
Are Indiana lawmakers afraid of an informed public? They may argue no, but this measure sends a totally different message.

We encourage and urge our readers to con-tact our legislators in the Indiana House of Representatives and the Indiana Senate to vote against this measure if and when it comes up for a vote.

The author of the bill, Representative Doug Miller of District 48, may be contacted at 800-382-9841.

Local legislators may be reached at:

Senators:

State Senator Andy Zay: by phone, 800-382-9467 or 317-232-9400; by e-mail, Senator-Zay@iga.in.gov.

State Senator Travis Holdman: by phone, 800-382-9467 or 317-232-9400; by e-mail, SenatorHold-man@iga.in.gov.

Representative:

State Representative Dan Leonard: by phone at 800-382-9841.