Washington lawmakers are considering two bills that would allow local governments to stop running public notices in local newspapers – a longstanding practice that many publications count on for revenue.
The House Local Government Committee on Wednesday took up one of the bills, HB 1818, which would offer counties the option of publishing legal and official notices on an online database run by the Department of Information Services.
The website would be funded by the counties in proportion to how much they use it. Counties also would have to provide free hard copies of notices to people who request them.
A second bill moving through the Legislature, HB 1478, would allow towns and cities to post information about new ordinances, upcoming hearings and meeting agendas on their own websites. Hard copies would be made available at a designated location.
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Supporters say the legislation would save local governments millions of dollars a year at a time when they face decreased tax revenues and state and federal aid.
“Our goal is to be the most cost-effective with taxpayer dollars,” said Scott Merriman, deputy director of the Washington State Association of Counties.
But groups representing Washington’s cash-strapped newspaper industry – including more than 125 dailies and weeklies throughout the state – say public notices help keep many publications in business. In addition, they say, many citizens, particularly seniors, don’t have regular Internet access and rely on newspapers to keep up with what’s happening in their communities.
“Readers expect them,” Bill Will, executive director of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, said of the notices. “It’s a small price to pay for informing citizens of what’s going on.”
Merriman and others say the price is not so small.
The association of counties recently asked the state’s 39 county governments to tally how much they spent last year on publishing legal notices in local papers. Twenty-five counties responded, reporting $1.5 million in total expenditures, Merriman said.