AUSTIN – A sheaf of plans to move public notices from newspapers to the Internet appears on track for a closer look by state officials.
Lawmakers this session offered about a dozen proposals to change how cities, counties, school districts, the state and other government agencies post notices for the public.
Some remove the announcements altogether from their traditional home inside newspapers, instead posting them to websites that require readers to know what they’re looking for to find the information.
Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, is calling on the lieutenant governor and House speaker to convene a committee to study the evolving issue between sessions of the Legislature. Hunter cited concerns about the number of Texans without Internet access, problems with archiving notices, as well as the cost-effectiveness and transparency of online-only notices.
His proposal for a study, if successful, likely will freeze other efforts to change public notices, said Donnis Baggett, executive vice president of the Texas Press Association. The Legislature’s session is scheduled to end June 1.
Baggett said there are more proposals “than ever” affecting how and where the public is informed of the government’s work - including election information, polling locations, bid proposals and other business.
A House committee this week considered two such bills - one about how the public is notified of changes to precinct boundaries, the other on moving polling place information to a website.
Rep. Cesar Blanco, D-El Paso, said changing where that information is published will save money and modernize government systems.
“The point of this bill is to increase voter access to quality information, not to limit it,” he said.
The idea won support from Glen Maxey, legislative affairs director for the state Democratic Party.
“I’ve been doing politics for 40 years. I have never gone to a newspaper to find the information about the change in a precinct line,” said Maxey, a former House member. “Newspaper publications are just a waste of taxpayer dollars, and you heard a Democrat say that.”
But Jim Moser, who heads Moser Community Media in Brenham, 90 miles southeast of Austin, said the government must do everything possible to ensure credibility and transparency, even on issues that might seem minor, such as changes in precinct boundaries.
“All the newspapers I’ve ever been associated with, have printed those maps,” said Moser, who spoke on behalf of the Texas Press Association. “Newspapers continue to be a great place for complex and detailed information such as this.”
Defenders of printed notices say the costs of creating and running hack-proof websites mean government doesn’t save the money promised by such proposals. Nor do government websites get as many eyeballs as a newspaper.
And without the review of a third party such as a newspaper, there’s no independent arbiter of whether an agency is publishing a full description of its activities, as required by law, according to supporters of printed notices.
The battle over access to public notices and emerging technology isn’t new - or limited to Texas.
Six years ago, 153 changes to public-notice laws were proposed in 40 states, according to a study sponsored by the Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy at the University of Southern California.
In Texas, the state Senate created a study committee three years ago, but no reform measure was filed as a result.
Baggett said he suspects a proposal to reform the publication of public notices will be filed before next year’s session. “We’ll be talking about that in great detail in the months ahead,” he said.
John Austin covers the Statehouse for CNHI’s Texas newspapers.