The public’s right to know and the right to easily access the information that belongs to it is endangered if several bills in the state Legislature end up as law.

One prime example is state Rep. Angie Chen Button’s House Bill 507, which would allow cities, counties and school districts to lessen their newspaper publication of public notices in lieu of posting those somewhere on the governmental entity’s own website or off on a contracted website.

“This bill allows cities to post bid information online,” the Richardson-based Republican told her constituents in a newsletter. “This is a more effective and efficient way for cities to operate. It will save time and your tax dollars.”

Maybe, maybe not – for one, not everybody has access to the Internet.

The Legislative Budget Board itself points out in a fiscal note about Chen Button’s bill: “No significant fiscal implication to units of local government is anticipated.”

And a Daily Light analysis found that required public notice expense represents, on average, about one/one-hundredth of a percent or less of the budgets of Ellis County ISDs surveyed.

As an example, during the 2009-2010 school year, Waxahachie ISD paid $5,768 for required published notices – or .0116 percent of its $49,740,467 general fund budget.

Paying the least percentage of its budget toward public notices was Red Oak ISD, which expended all of $1,237 – or .0032 percent of its $38,897,708 general fund budget.

The Daily Light also checked with Ellis County government, which expended .0433 percent, or $15,292, of its $35,309,986 general fund budget on paid public notices.

The amount of money most governments spend on public notice is much less than what is spent on items like travel or office supplies, according to the Texas Press Association and Texas Daily Newspaper Association.

As an example, in 2007, Dallas ISD spent $127,000 on public notices, which was .011 percent of its budget. Compare that expense to keep the public informed with the $10.1 million DISD spent on office supplies that same year.

When it’s all said and done, the money spent on public notice is a small price for keeping taxpayers in the loop relating to the activities of their government.

Under Texas law, newspapers are required to charge their lowest classified advertising rate for publishing public notices. The notices aren’t a huge moneymaker for newspapers, but there is a cost for printing, distributing and formatting the notices.

The TPA/TDNA has compiled a list of reasons why publishing notices in a newspaper shouldn’t go by the wayside.

One key reason is that newspaper public notice, both in print and online, provides a third-party system to verify information about governments’ activities is reaching as many taxpayers as possible. Publishers are required to provide an affidavit that the information was published for the required time period, which would not happen with a government-based or contracted Internet site.

Newspapers, because of the reach of their print and Internet editions, are still the best way to ensure this information is disseminated. Most newspaper websites consistently exceeds most government websites in the same market by a 10-to-1 margin based on unique visitors, while surveys have repeatedly shown obituaries and public notices are the two most widely read parts of the paper. (Waxahachie Newspapers posts all government legal and public notices on its website in an area that is accessible to everyone, regardless of whether or not they are a subscriber to the paper).

The TPA/TDNA position is clear: Texas taxpayers have a right to be informed about the activities of their governing bodies, whether it is on the state, local or school board level – and Texas newspapers, big and small, are united in opposing this legislation as proposed by Rep. Chen Button.

Moving public notices to a government or government-contracted site would inevitably result in the public knowing less, which raises the question: Is Rep. Chen Button’s bill actually a smoke and mirrors front for something far more nefarious?

After all, while she’s dangling a few dollars in front of financially-weary taxpayers and saying she’s “saving” money, her bill is set to remove a major safeguard as to how vast sums of other money are expended from here on out into the future.

Imagine the time alone it would take on a daily basis to troll the more than two-dozen governmental websites in Ellis County for legal notices that affect taxpayers’ lives and wallets. Add to that having to search for public notices on all of the other websites for agencies up through the state level.

Statewide

newspaper notices

To better serve the public, the Texas Press Association and Texas Daily Newspaper Association have developed a joint website to which all member publications submit their published public notices – at no additional charge to the respective governmental entities.

The website is located at http://www.txheadlines.com, where readers can click on “public notices” and search statewide by newspaper or subject.

The TPA/TDNA public notices website also is accessible via www.texaspress.com, click “Texas public notices” in the upper right hand corner, and via www.tdna.org, click on “services” then “public notice website.”

Contact JoAnn at joann@wninews.com or 469-517-1452.