Wisconsin Governor's Information Dissemination Proposal Sparks Argument

Proponents say the measures would save money for taxpayers while updating how government disseminates information in the digital age.

by Mark Sommerhauser, The Wisconsin State Journal / March 3, 2017

(TNS) -- A push to scrap requirements to run public notices in newspapers pits Gov. Scott Walker, who says the move would bring government into the 21st century, against critics who say it would hurt the public’s right to know.

Walker, in his proposal for the state’s 2017-2019 budget, offers what he describes as a “government reform” measure affecting legal requirements for printing, mailing and publishing public notices.

It would give state and local agencies the option to publish certain public notices on their websites instead of in a local newspaper. Some lawmakers are offering a separate bill that would extend an online-only publishing option just to local governments.

Proponents say the measures would save money for taxpayers while updating how government disseminates information in the digital age. Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said in a statement that the governor’s proposal would “modernize government services, create efficiencies, and cost savings for taxpayers.”

“More people are sharing more information digitally every day, and government should be expected to keep up with these basic technological advancements,” Evenson said.

Critics say the changes would be a blow to the public’s ability to learn about government business. Beth Bennett, executive director of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, said the internet — far from being what birthed these proposals — is only the latest means some are using toward the end of jettisoning newspapers as independent stewards of public information.

“Way before the internet was an issue, it was just a cost issue,” Bennett said. “That’s the reason that newspapers were entrusted (with public notices) — so government doesn’t have to report on itself.

“That’s what this legislation would do: it would allow government to report on itself.”

Not all public notices are affected by the proposed changes. Walker’s plan would not apply to notices of upcoming public meetings or hearings, or to court-ordered notices for foreclosure and unclaimed property, according to the newspaper association.

Types of notices that would be affected include so-called “proceedings” notices of public meeting minutes, budgets and ordinances. Current law generally requires governmental units to print such notices in a newspaper published in the affected jurisdiction. The Wisconsin Newspaper Association collects and publishes all public notices online at the wisconsinpublicnotices.org website.

Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, and Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond du Lac, are sponsoring companion bills that would give the online-only publishing option to local governments.

The proposals are part of a national effort to roll back publishing requirements for public notices. At least 12 states are considering legislation that would move all or most of their official notices from newspapers to websites operated or controlled by government units, the Public Notice Resource Center reported last month.

Local government advocacy groups are among the supporters of the Stroebel-Thiesfeldt bill. Dan Rossmiller, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said it could results in cost savings for districts, albeit on a scale that is “not huge.” The issue is more about local control, he said.

“Our intent, really, is to let school boards decide how they want to distribute the information,” Rossmiller said.

Senate Democratic Leader Jennifer Shilling, of La Crosse, has spoken out against Walker’s proposed changes.

“The Legislature should remove this policy change from the budget and force Gov. Walker to explain why he wants to limit public oversight,” Shilling said in a statement.

State Rep. Todd Novak is uniquely positioned to address the issue, having served both as a newspaper editor for 25 years and as mayor of Dodgeville.

In a recent Wisconsin State Journal op-ed piece, Novak, R-Dodgeville, argued against Walker’s proposed changes. Novak said they could cause particular harm in parts of rural Wisconsin, where he wrote that “newspapers are the lifeblood of a community and sometimes the only convenient source of information.”

“By allowing the electronic option, we are cutting off a source of information to our constituents, our taxpayers and the people who hold us accountable,” Novak wrote. “At this time, the savings obtained by not publishing notices does not outweigh the public’s right to know.”

“The Legislature should remove this policy change from the budget and force Gov. Walker to explain why he wants to limit public oversight.”

©2017 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.