Another year, another serving of taxpayer paid-for and wasted welfare to Louisiana newspapers is the answer to one Bossier City Council member’s inquiry.
At last week’s meeting, Republican Councilor David Montgomery asked, when it and other governing authorities across the state do this time of year, upon the Council taking up naming an official journal for the coming year whether something could be done about reducing the expense associated with that. Council Clerk Phyllis McGraw said the city spent at least $25,000 annually in legal notices, which she said duplicates what the city puts online. She also spoke that if there were newspapers in an area then these had to appear in one or more of these, which then made the city hostage to their publication deadlines for referrals.
Well, to answer his question, on almost an annual basis for the past several years legislators have brought bills to remove the requirement to publish, in whole or part, in a newspaper a jurisdiction’s public notices. A number of states have broadened eligibility to allow an online format published by nongovernment entities, but recently Florida became the first state to allow bypass of that entirely by allowing governments in larger-populated counties with impunity to publish notices solely through their own websites, while those with lower populations must demonstrate they can do so without unduly impeding public access before being able to avoid use of newspaper publishing of these.
But as the newspaper industry has continued its long decline, in part because of its own actions, increasingly it has fought to keep this kind of corporate welfare, Louisiana’s included. The special interest groups that represent them run a number of false arguments to continue inducing taxpayers to spend more than they need to on shoring up their members’ bottom lines.
Among such spurious claims are reading newsprint makes it easier to come across notices (as if newspapers don’t run websites and does anyone seriously when reading the comics wander over to the notices, when in fact notices are accessed regardless of media only with a motivated search), publishing in newspapers makes it more difficult for government to hide information (like newspapers actually vet what notices they run for accuracy and completeness; they don’t and just take what’s handed to them and run with it), in disseminating information newspapers do better because they have design delivery to attract readership (check out the typical newspaper online and try to find notices versus the usually transparent and direct methods governments use to transmit the same information), and providing digital access is more difficult for lower-income groups (what’s the difference in going to the library to read newsprint or to view a government web site, and anyway lower socioeconomic status groups are less likely to view online news content while they have become increasingly trained to use government web sites to access services).
And this year in Louisiana, SB 322 by GOP state Sen. Fred Mills would have reduced, but not eliminated, taxpayer costs in this regard, by running in print shortened notices that directed people to web sites for more information. His compromise approach accelerated when in committee Mills even offered to amend the bill to have printed notices sent to requesting constituents. And Republican state Sen. Heather Cloud, a former mayor of a small town, during hearings noted how current law actually interfered with transparency with some governments unable to pay for this unfunded mandate, and endorsed this balanced approach.
But the Louisiana Press Association acted as if this enacted would end the world, incredibly claiming that the bill would result “Higher Taxes More government spending Higher crime rates Poorer performing schools Less transparency More corruption.” And it apparently got to enough committee members so that they put a hold on the bill and it never came back up for consideration.
It's an age-old asymmetry in policy-making – advantage goes to concentrated benefit recipients policy preferences when costs to achieve this are dispersed among many. Hopefully – and becoming more obvious every year as technology evolves – eventually this blatant rent-seeking for no defensible reasons becomes so obvious that policy-makers eventually will act to stop it.