By STEVE KEY, guest columnist
At the end of their year, corporations create an annual report for their shareholders. They mail it to those shareholders or present it at a meeting of those shareholders. The information helps investors decide whether they want to increase or decrease their holdings in that corporation.
At the end of the year, local governments complete an annual report for their shareholders — taxpayers. For decades and decades, the state legislature has required that those reports be published in local newspapers. The information helps taxpayers determine whether their tax dollars have been spent wisely by elected officials.
Two bills under consideration in two different House committees would take those annual reports out of the hands of Hoosiers, with publication replaced by posting on government websites. H.B. 1004 eliminates the annual report publication for cities and towns. H.B. 1005 eliminates the annual report publication for townships.
These provisions in those bills didn’t originate from everyday Hoosiers. They spring from the desires of Accelerate Indiana Municipalities, which represents city and town officials, and the Indiana Township Association, which represents township trustees and board members.
The proposals in these bills remove the publication from newspapers, which are read weekly by 3 million adult Hoosiers. The suggested replacement is publication on the state Department of Local Government Finance’s Indiana Gateway website.
The website contains a wealth of information that the majority of Hoosiers has no idea is available. That’s the problem with the legislative proposals.
Only 12,300 unique visitors visited the site where local government budgets are posted during the entire 2017 year, and that would include officials from the more than 2,000 local government units who are told to go online to make sure their budgets have been posted correctly. So the number of average taxpayers who visit this site is going to be less than the weekly average of 237 unique visitors.
Let’s recap: Publication of annual reports puts your local government’s year-end snapshot into the hands of 3 million Hoosiers during any given week. Posting on a government website might be seen by less than 250 Hoosiers on any given week.
In other words, posting without publication effectively hides this important information in plain sight.
So, why would the associations want to diminish Hoosiers’ opportunity to see how government units spent their tax dollars? I would attribute it to a bureaucratic mind-set, not malicious behavior.
Publishing a notice in a newspaper is harder work than emailing it to a statewide website for posting. The local government official must determine the deadline for giving it to the newspaper so that it can be published during the correct time period, then submit the public notice, collect proof of publication and pay the newspaper for the publication.
And what’s the reward for this hassle? Residents might actually call with questions or concerns, or even show up at a public meeting of the council or board to ask questions.
You and I might call that democracy; the bureaucratic mind-set calls it asking for trouble.
The question for Hoosiers is, do they prefer government efficiency at the expense of public knowledge? Hoosiers, in a survey conducted for the Hoosier State Press Association and Foundation by American Opinion Research, have spoken clearly on this question.
Sixty-three percent of adult Hoosiers say government officials should publish public notices, such as the annual reports, in local newspapers — even when it’s pointed out that publication of notices over the year may cost a public agency several thousands of dollars.
Speaking of that revenue, the Legislative Services Agency estimated the average cost of publishing these annual reports at $167 for the government entity to show how it spent thousands or millions of your tax dollars. They don’t mind spending that little in tax dollars if the information is placed in their hands rather than requiring them to search for the information.
According to Hoosiers, there would be a 60-percent decline in their readership of public notices if they are only posted on government websites.
Hoosiers now need to tell their local legislators their preference for public notices by urging the continuation of the publication of annual reports. If you don’t speak up, legislators will only hear from government officials who are fine with the information disappearing onto websites, and newspaper publishers who may be accused of supporting this legislation only for the revenue.
It’s up to the public to tell legislators it’s a government transparency issue and you want to know what local government is doing.
District 65 Rep. Chris May (R-Bedford)
District 44 Sen. Eric Koch (R-Bedford)
Stephen Key is executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association. The Brown County Democrat is an HSPA member.