Rockford's Independent Newspaper

Editorial. An annually pointless bill

It’s old-hat for State Rep. Joe Sosnowski. The Rockford Republican is back with another effort to strip public notices out of newspapers.

This is an annual right of passage for some Republicans in statehouses across the country. Barring Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, taking up the cause in 2016, Sosnowski has been the go-to vehicle in Illinois for this failed idea: this is his sixth go at it.

Some form of this boilerplate conservative think tank-sponsored legislation has never made it out of committee in Springfield. In fact, only one state has ever passed such a law: Utah snuck it over the line in 2009 only to see it repealed in 2011 after government bodies failed to comply with posting the required information. In short: Utah’s legislature passed a law they were destined to break.

Just how bad are government bodies in Illinois at doing the internet? Pretty bad. A 2014 audit by the Citizens Advocacy Center of 750 units of government showed that only 57 percent of government bodies complied with posting agendas of upcoming meetings as required by law, and only 49 percent of those bodies surveyed maintained any website whatsoever.

Now, Sosnowski’s HB4298, a carbon copy of his five other previous attempts, would require the state’s nearly 7,000 bodies of government to be solely responsible for posting this vital public information and foot the bill for maintaining accessible databases for the public to peruse. Remind us again how cash-rich Illinois governments are?

Sosnowski told us back in 2015 that he was, “Just trying to move us into the 20th century. Internet has been around for awhile. Maybe next year we can work on the 21st.”

Yet here we are, three years later, and the state’s newspapers are still paying to fund and maintain a centralized database of public notices. In fact, the Illinois Press Association and its members, including The Times, supported legislation over six years ago to do just that: maintain these critical public documents because government bodies have shown they’re incapable of maintaining even functional websites. Newspapers do this because taxpayers have a right to this information and the government has proven incapable of providing it. That’s why no U.S. states do it.

There’s a hint of irony in this now, too, as statehouse Republicans recently signed onto a bill to support expanding rural broadband service in Illinois. Right now, 1.2 million residents in Illinois lack access to broadband services, or about 9 percent of the population. In rural areas, that number skyrockets to 56 percent. Fifty-six percent of residents in the state’s rural communities lack reliable access to government websites that wouldn’t even be up to the task of hosting these public notices if asked.

People in those areas rely increasingly more on local newspapers to inform them of government activities. Given the FCC’s elimination of the main studio rule, which allows national conglomerates to snap up more and more local TV channels every day, this has never been truer. For these reasons and more, numerous groups, including the AARP, have consistently opposed the kind of legislation Sosnowski has yet again produced.

Then there’s the simple notion that somehow a government body is just as equipped at transmitting information to citizens as a media company. Which, of course, would be why we get emails from Rep. Sosnowski’s office, and every other local and state politician, regularly touting his achievements in the hopes that we will report them.

There’s a reason governments go to newspapers and media outlets to transmit information: people will see it and read it. So one would have to question what the intention is in leaving it to governments across Illinois to publish their own public records. Newspapers allow a third-party, the citizens, a chance to review the work of government. And, unlike a website, when it’s printed, it’s there forever. That’s why the reliability of newspaper publication is accepted as evidence in court, and Illinois requires it for many court actions.

And yes, public notices are a revenue stream for newspapers. There’s no denying that. But those funds support jobs in local communities across Illinois. Reporters, editors, designers, salespeople, delivery people, the folks who run the presses, the folks who maintain those presses, the folks who deliver the ink and paper to go on those presses, the bars and restaurants and local shops all those people frequent. You get the picture.

But the work to produce those notices is done with every cost to the governments, our governments, in mind. We do all the work to make sure they comply with state statutes, to keep governments from falling foul of the law and incurring further costs. We set and maintain the standards by which these notices are made available to the public, independent of the bodies that produce them. We make them available for every taxpayer on a centralized statewide database.

Consider the financial status of Illinois and the local governments in our area. Imagine every single body of government in Illinois (again, around 7,000) doing all of that work on an individual basis. Now imagine the additional staff they would need to do so. And now think about what that would cost. Sosnowski and those like him have tried to sell these bills as a cost-saving measure, yet not one proponent of these kinds of laws has shown that they actually save any money. On average, nationwide, the costs associated with public notices cost government bodies less than one-half of one percent of their budgets (a study in Arizona pinned it at around .0005 percent). And, as we saw in Utah, they can’t even do the work in the first place.

This is a sham bill wrought with problems, yet one Sosnowski has brought forth again and again. “The fact is, Illinois’ economy is not growing the way Wisconsin and other neighboring states are,” he said last week. “With a shrinking population following jobs and opportunity out of state, we need to put our priorities back in the right place with a new approach in 2018.”

This bill won’t solve the fiscal problems of Illinois or Rockford or any other government body. And it will cost jobs. Joe Sosnowski knows this, yet here we are again for a sixth go-around. So, one more time, we urge you to call your local legislator (if he’s your rep, you can reach Sosnowski’s office at 815-547-3436) and tell them to stop this pointless and costly bill. R.

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