Opponents say move blocks access to info for lower-income and elder citizens
By Isaac Peterson
A bill making the rounds in the State Legislature that has largely flown under the radar of most Minnesotans was the subject of a Senate Committee hearing last week. The Minnesota State and Local Government Committee Senate heard testimony regarding the proposed bill, SF 1152, last Wednesday at the Capitol.
The bill, according to its chief author, Jon Pederson (R-St. Cloud), would allow local government entities to opt out of posting public notices in newspapers and instead to post such notices on their websites. Pederson contends that requiring government to post notices in qualified newspapers is a burdensome cost and constitutes what he called an “unfunded mandate.” Pederson also said that, under his proposed bill, if a government entity or agency chose to publish notices exclusively on its website, it would need to make print copies available at their offices. He also said that concerned citizens could access the notices at the library or receive them by mail from that agency at the citizen’s request.
Similar bills have surfaced across the country, and newspapers in Illinois and Georgia, to name two, have taken to establishing websites exclusively for public notices. Prior to the testimony, State Senator Jeff Hayden, who sits on the State and Local Government Committee, said he had three “concerns” about the bill:
1. “I’ve always wanted to understand how public notice works, especially in communities of color: how does a public notice get out? How do we ensure that all communities receive it?”
2. “I’m very concerned because we’re talking about 30 percent of Greater Minnesota doesn’t have access to broadband. If 30 percent of Greater Minnesota — according to a quote that I heard — doesn’t have access to the internet, then how is the word supposed to get to the public? I don’t know what the latest numbers are in the inner city. I think that you could look at the situation and say that socioeconomically, those lower-income communities have lower access to the internet. So once again, if we are only going to put the notices on a website that the city operates, does everybody have access to that?”
3. “I think that the city has been negligent in making sure that these opportunities go to more than just any particular paper. They need to spread that around to community-based papers, to ensure that everybody is getting access to the public notices. So I am very concerned that they would be saving money by not giving people the right to know if there is something going on in their community that they need to know about.”
Many supporters of the bill, representing Minnesota townships, cities, and counties testified in its favor at the committee hearing. Some of the points raised in favor were:
• Publishing public notices in newspapers has a higher per capita cost in lower populated areas.
• Taxpayers are better served receiving information online.
• Newspapers don’t reach every citizen.
• Money can be better spent on schools than on publishing public notices.
• Public libraries offer access to computers.
• More and more citizens are turning to government sources online for information.
• Newspaper subscriptions also cost money.
• Today’s youth are more prone to turn to online sources.
One of the more effective opponents testifying appeared to be Mark Anfinson, attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association. Among the points raised by Anfinson were:
• Local governments already have the option to post notices online.
• Crow Wing County recouped its public notice costs by charging back publishing costs to properties with delinquent taxes that had been published in public notices.
• When notices are published in the newspapers, people don’t have to keep track of lots of government websites.
• Public notice laws are all about government transparency and accountability.
• “The state of Minnesota is complex” and a “broad brush” approach will not serve the public well, nor will a “simplistic meat cleaver approach.”
Other points raised in opposition:
• People are less likely to see public notices online as opposed to in newspapers.
• It is easier to locate notices printed in a newspaper compared to finding them on a government website.
• Hard copy newspaper notices are more easily archived and provide a better historical resource for reference than government websites.
Although not always the case in practice, government agencies can publish notices in the newspaper that has made the lowest bid for publishing notices.
• Publishing public notices is typically a very small per cent of a local government’s operating costs, .0038 percent in one case.
• People over 65 years of age are less likely to turn to the internet for information.
At one point, Senator Hayden raised his concern about residents without broadband access, asking “How do we deal with [outstate residents without broadband] and urban folks who can’t afford broadband?”
Hayden’s concern appeared to be supported by a headline in the following morning’s Minneapolis Star Tribune, titled “Broadband’s reach falling short in state,” and with the subhead “Nearly 500,000 households still lack high-speed internet.”
Eventually the bill was declared “held over for future consideration,” due to lack of consensus among members of the Senate committee. Committee chair Sandy Pappas explained to the MSR after the hearing that the move means the bill will not be sent out of the committee to the full Senate for consideration, and will languish in limbo until such time as it is picked up by a member of Minnesota’s House of Representatives, if ever.
The move renders the bill dead for the time being, for all intents and purposes.
Isaac Peterson welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.