Cost-cutting. Expense reduction. Balance the budget. The buzzwords of today for all levels of government and all levels of personal income. And the state of Iowa is not immune to the buzz.
Iowa’s legislature is just one of many around the country that is contemplating radical changes to how they serve the public’s right to know. Every state has a law requiring government agencies to print, in a “newspaper of general circulation”, notices of its activities, meetings and intentions. In Iowa, unlike many states, the rate government pays those newspapers is established by government and adjusted annually, up or down, based on the annual Consumer Price Index, an accepted reflection of inflation in our economy.
Legislators in Des Moines are currently considering a bill that would change the pricing structure of these notices to a flat fee. Maybe that’s a good thing, maybe not. The Iowa Newspaper Association and many of its members (this newspaper among them) have voiced opposition to this bill.
At the risk of sounding self-serving and capitalistic, let’s say right from the start that revenue from the publication of legal notices is important to the bottom line in our industry. We’re in business to make money, just like every person who goes to work for a living day in and day out. We are facing the same budget crunch as the government and the private sector, so we are sympathetic to the need to cut costs. But, this doesn’t make sense.
So let’s look at this from the financial perspective first and the altruistic point of view later.
At the present time, the average rate of a column inch (one column wide by one inch deep) of legal advertising is over 80% off our newspapers’ non-contract rate. While our advertisers receive discounts based on volume, none of them comes close to an 80%+ discount!
For our two newspapers, the amount of money billed to the state for public notice advertising in the 2010 budget year is .2% of their total budget. Yes, “point two percent”. For the cities and schools in Pella and Knoxville, it was much smaller at .03% and .016% respectively. Removing that amount of expense from the state budget seems like a fairly half-hearted attempt at budget-cutting.
If the issue is cost-savings, there is little proof that this bill will provide it. In fact, it is quite possible it will backfire, causing an overall increase in the total expense and opening the door to having the legislature pursue a similar bill (as they have in the past) mandating legal notices be posted on the internet and not in local newspapers.
The truth is that research proves without fear of contradiction that publishing legal accounts of their activities is the cheapest form of insurance against a public body running out of control. Most people don’t turn to the legals by choice, but they report running into them while reading their newspapers. They tell researchers they’d never go on the Internet just to keep track of legals. In Iowa, we hedge that bet as the newspapers also publish their legals, for free, on a dedicated legal site that is searchable: http://www.newzgroup.com/iowa/iowa.html.
If the issue is about cost-cutting, how does this legislation make sense? Is an informed public worth something less than an 80%+ discount?
If the issue isn’t financial, we need to ask why it appears as though the officials elected to conduct business on behalf of the public are planning a measure that would limit the public’s awareness of their conduct of that business. If it’s not the money, what’s the reason our legislators want to keep us in the dark?
Local legislators Jim VanEngelenhoven, of Pella (Jim.Engelenhoven@ legis.state.ia.us) and Richard Arnold, of Russell (firstname.lastname@example.org ) will be grappling with this issue in the coming days. It’s important that we be heard.
Contributing writers: Maureen Miller, Publisher of the Knoxville Journal Express and Pella Chronicle and Dave Balcom, Publisher of the Ottumwa Courier.