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Budget notices on government website leave Indiana citizens in the dark

Every once in awhile, we like to remind readers of the glaring difference between general-circulation newspapers and government websites. Below is a piece from Public Notice Research Center that re-emphasizes the point: Just because information is available on government sites doesn’t mean anybody looks at it.

In 2014, then-Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed a law passed by the Indiana legislature that eliminated newspaper notice of local government budgets. Before the law was enacted, all local government units in Indiana — from cities and counties to libraries and conservation districts — were required to publish their proposed annual budgets and estimated tax rates in a local newspaper.

Now they only need to post them on the website of the state’s Department of Local Government Finance (DLGF), which was one of the main proponents of the new law.

Each year since the new law passed, the Hoosier State Press Association (HSPA) has asked the agency for traffic data for the Budget Notices for Local Government page on its website. To its credit, DLGF voluntarily provided the following numbers:

Last half of 2014 – 4,600 unique visitors
Last half of 2015 – 5,500 unique visitors
Last half of 2016 – 7,000 unique visitors

In case you’re wondering, those aren’t daily or weekly or even monthly traffic figures. Those numbers reflect the total visits to the page for each entire six-month period.

And as puny as they are they actually overstate the number of Indiana citizens who now receive notice of their governments’ proposed budgets.

First, like most websites a signifiant portion of DLGF’s website traffic is probably generated by Google search referrals from people who live outside of the state. So the unique visitor totals provided by DLGF are inflated by the incidence of non-residents who visit the page. And of course, public notice laws aren’t designed for the benefit of non-residents.

Second, DLGF directs local public officials to check its website every year to make sure their budgets are posted, according to HSPA Executive Director Steve Key. Leave aside the fact that this almost certainly means that some of those budgets never get posted. Since Indiana has 2,000+ local government units, it also suggests that much of the non-foreign traffic to DLGF’s budget page may very well come from government officials.

One is left to wonder: Has anyone in Indiana who doesn’t work for the government or media read any of the proposed budgets submitted by local government units since the new law took effect in 2014?

Meanwhile, consider that HSPA’s American Opinion Research study in 2014 found that 3.8 million Hoosiers read at least one newspaper per week. It’s also worth noting that budget notices are almost impossible to miss when they’re published in a newspaper. At a minimum, they generally occupy several columns on a page and contain bold text and lines of numbers that jump out at the average reader. (We posted below three of the last budget notices ever to run in Indiana newspapers.)

So when Mike Pence signed the law eliminating newspaper notice of proposed budgets, the state of Indiana traded a medium that by its very nature promotes effective notice for one that does not. And it swapped 3.8 million potential readers for, at best, a handful of highly motivated citizens. If you wanted to wrest control of local tax and budget processes from regular citizens in order to hand it to politicians, lobbyists and activists, this would be a great way to start.

This isn’t the way public notice is supposed to work.Budget notices published in newspapers in August 2014:

Daily Journal (Johnson County) (PDF)
Post-Tribune of Northwest Indiana (PDF)
The Salem Leader (PDF)

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