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Legislature must reinstate budget publication

My Opinion
Legislature must reinstate budget publication
Legislature must reinstate budget publication
Stephanie Taylor Ferriell
Stephanie Taylor Ferriell, Senior Staff Writer, [email protected]

Where can you find reports on local governing bodies, such as school boards, county commissioners, town boards, the list goes on?
Where do you find honor rolls for all the schools in the county?

What about a list of all those who have been arrested and charged in a week’s time? Reports on major crimes, crashes and fires?
A calendar of upcoming events?

School performance reports and annual reports from governmental agencies?

There is one place — and one place only — where residents can access all the above information. It’s the community newspaper.

There is no website, no newsletter, no email group and no social media app that provides this service. None of them even come close.

We all are aware that newspapers have been fighting for their lives during the past decade. The decline in advertising revenue has been a tremendous challenge.

What hasn’t changed one iota is your community newspaper’s commitment and dedication to continuing the coverage readers expect. Yes, in some ways we do it differently now, but we are still covering all the things we always have. There simply is no other medium like a newspaper, especially a small-town one. A local newspaper is the heartbeat of the community.

And, people realize the paper’s importance. They know those reporters at government meetings hold elected officials accountable. They also know public notice advertising matters.

However, for the past five years, residents have not been able to access budgets for local government entities. The Indiana State Legislature ended that requirement, pressured by the Indiana Dept. of Local Government Finance.

The DGLF argued they could do it just as well and much more cheaply by placing that information on their website. They got the cheap part right but completely missed the mark on public access.

Only 12,000 unique visitors saw local government budgets on the DGLF website in 2017, according to the Hoosier State Press Association. Compare that to the three million Hoosier newspaper readers who can no longer count on reading budget details in their local paper.

The Hoosier State Press Association, a member organization representing Indiana newspapers, advocates not just on behalf of newspapers, but for the good of the public at large. It’s a disservice to each community member to not have budget information published in a newspaper, where it could be found year after year for decades.

During the past two decades, the HSPA has fought 84 different bills that would have eliminated or reduced newspaper notices. While those notices are a revenue stream for papers, the far bigger loss is to a public who no longer has a clear idea how their elected officials are budgeting and spending money.

In 2014, the HSPA commissioned American Opinion Research to survey 1,000 Hoosiers regarding their opinions about the importance of public notice advertisements. The results leave little doubt about what Indiana newspaper readers want:

• 85% supported publication of public notices as a way to inform residents of government actions.

• 64% said governing bodies should be required to publish these announcements even if it costs thousands of dollars per year.

• 61% said they had read or seen public notices advertised in a newspaper.

The ball is in the hands of legislators at this point. State lawmakers should make 2020 the year they make annual budgets part of the notice of budget hearings again.

Those of us who must fund these budgeting decisions and live with what our elected officials decide deserve no less.