The Kentucky House of Representatives is not interested in the public’s right to know, it seems.

Rep. Steven Rudy (R-Paducah) announced in an Appropriations and Revenue committee meeting Thursday afternoon that the committee substitute on House Bill 351, the House revenue bill, includes language to allow all public agencies to publish their notices on a website instead of in the local newspaper of record.

The language, buried inside the 201-page markup of the original 24-page bill, came as a surprise to many of the key players – including the Kentucky Association of Counties, Kentucky League of Cities and the Kentucky Press Association.

These three organizations recently reached a compromise regarding public notices on House Bill 195, sponsored by Rep. Jerry Miller (R-Louisville). While not ideal, HB 195 provides for government agencies in counties with a census population of more than 80,000 to move their public notices online.

Apparently perturbed that smaller, rural communities with lack of broadband access or no government agency websites to speak of could still access their public notices in their local newspaper, Rep. Rudy moved to insert this language into a completely unrelated bill.

The original version of that bill includes no language amending KRS 424 regarding public notice advertising or online advertising that it was concerning. In fact, the bill’s LegiScan summary describes it as an emergency bill to define terms for taxes on tobacco products and to impose an excise tax on vapor products.

The original text is not at all related to the publication of public notices.

House Leadership has been working to present this proposal to the full House as the revenue bill for 2020-2022, and they used this fairly innocuous bill as the vehicle by which to do it. It was then rammed through the chamber in a hurry to prevent the backlash everyone knew would be coming.

The House recessed on Thursday afternoon to hear the presentation from Rep. Rudy on the committee substitute and then went back into session. Upon entering back into session, the House gave the committee substitute for HB 351 its second reading, making it available for passage on Friday morning.

As the language came from House Leadership, there was no chance of having it removed before the full House voted on the bill. Despite heartfelt comments by some State Representatives about transparency and doing things behind closed doors, like putting in a change in the Public Notice Law, the Kentucky House of Representatives approved HB 351, Committee Substitute 1 by a 57-34 vote.

The House also shot down a floor amendment that was going to be sponsored by Rep. Joe Graviss (D-Versailles) by a 37-48 vote. Rep. Graviss’ amendment would have deleted the entire section of the state revenue bill that included the change related to public notices.

Those who support this bill will try to tell you it's about government saving money and being more responsible with your tax dollars. After all, it costs money to print these notices.

But it's more than a bit ironic that in a $23-$24 billion budget, the way legislators have chosen to "save" money is to make it more difficult for taxpayers to see how they are spending all that money in the first place.

This isn't about being fiscally responsible; in fact, it's the exact opposite. Legislators want to control the flow of information to make it more difficult for you as a citizen and taxpayer to know what your government is doing and how they are spending your money.

It now moves on to the Senate with this nefarious language intact. And it is now up to senators to do the right thing and block this effort to circumvent transparency. There is no legitimate argument for making this change now and sending government further into a black hole and out of the light.

This bill is bad policy for a number of reasons.

First off, this bill flips public notice on its head by reducing government transparency. Simply put, putting legal notices on government websites means very few Kentucky citizens will ever read them. Public notice along with public meetings and public records have been part of our nation’s commitment to open government since the founding of the Republic. Our Founders placed public notices in newspapers to be noticed.

Next, there are far too many agencies involved for this solution to be viable. In many counties there are multiple municipalities and townships with several agencies within their umbrella, school boards, county government, etc.

Instead of having access all in one place, an inquiring citizen would need to spend countless hours each day chasing down each agency’s website to view the individual meeting notices, requests for proposals, bid requests, etc.

Additionally, a free press exists to hold power to account. The public should believe strongly that those who govern be accountable by way of an independent third party. The public should not rely on any local government to have control on what is placed on a website, how it is placed or where it is placed.

This is the equivalent of putting the fox in charge of the hen house. The proposed solution is inefficient at best, and a train wreck for transparency.

This proposal severely restricts access to public information. Nearly one in five Kentuckians are without reliable access to an internet connection.

Furthermore, many smaller cities and government agencies do not have websites, or do not regularly update them. Furthermore, much of rural Kentucky still lacks reliable broadband access and would not have a vehicle to view public notices inside the parameters of this proposal.

It should never be the goal of the legislature to create a less-informed electorate.

The impact of this legislation would be a formidable blow to many smaller community newspapers across the state. In smaller communities, the revenue gained from public notice advertising directly supports jobs.

As a result, smaller community papers would literally be put out of business, and mid-sized communities would have to make tough decisions about what products and services to scale back as result of no longer having the revenue to support them.

The proponents of this legislation argue two points. They say that it is more efficient to place these notices online and that it will save government agencies needed money to put toward other priorities such as pension obligations. But it accomplishes neither.

Newspapers across Kentucky are already putting public notices online in real time and doing it in a better way than proposed the lawmakers in Frankfort. Anyone can visit to view up-to-date public notices from across the state.

If this bill is passed, city and county governments will be required to recreate the same infrastructure currently in place to make notices easily searchable, mobile friendly, and provide email notification upon request of a specific notice (which newspapers do today). That recreation will not be cheap.

In fact, the promised savings may never be realized. Nor will the audience, without a major investment in marketing to direct our citizens to what would be hundreds of government websites.

As far as saving local government money so they can clean up Frankfort’s mess in the ongoing pension crisis, that is a farce.

A study completed in October 2016 by the Legislative Research Commission’s Program Review and Investigations Committee and coordinating LRC staff, found that on average a public agency spends only one percent of its operating budget on publishing these notices in local newspapers.

Research Report No. 431 proves the cost is not at all exorbitant though some would have you believe that. The legislature’s own research shows that this is a bad idea.

In fact, crippling local businesses with this move could backfire across the state.

Many small newspapers across Kentucky can show that they pay quite a bit more in local taxes — property taxes, payroll taxes, other local taxes — than what they receive from publishing public notices. Putting them out of business would actually cost their local governments money.

More than 250 years ago our founders decided to place these public notices in one public forum: newspapers – an open space where The People were most likely to see them, not across hundreds, if not thousands, of different venues hoping folks will find them.

Let’s keep Kentucky transparent and informed. Please call your local legislator to share your voice before it’s too late.

Brandon Cox is publisher of the Madisonville Messenger, Dawson Springs Progress and Providence Journal-Enterprise. He also manages the newspapers in Hopkinsville, Oak Grove, Cadiz, Russellville and Franklin. He can be reached by email to bcox@the-messenger.comFollow Brandon on Twitter at @BrandonJCox. 

Mike Weafer is publisher of the Messenger-Inquirer, and group publisher for the Kentucky/Indiana/Tennessee group for Paxton Media. 

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