The Hoosier State Press Association has an opinion column in the Courier Press objecting to proposed legislation that would result in annual government reports of receipts and expenditures being published online and would no longer require them to be published in the newspaper. It specifies HB 1004 by Rep. Siegrist (concerning cities and towns) and HB 1005 by Rep. Ziemke (concerning townships).
At the end of the year, local governments complete an annual report for their shareholders — taxpayers. For decades and decades, the state legislature has required that those reports be published in local newspapers. The information helps taxpayers determine whether their tax dollars have been spent wisely by elected officials.
As an initial matter, the “taxpayers are shareholders” metaphor rubs me the wrong way. There is tremendous overlap between citizens and taxpayers, but ultimately, citizenship is what confers an “ownership” stake in the country. Paying taxes is an incident of citizenship. The rights and duties we have flow from our status as citizens; not whether and how much we paid in taxes.
But that’s an aside. The thrust of the opinion piece is that posting the financial report on the Department of Local Government Finance website is “hiding” the information because lots of people read the newspaper (3 million a week!) while, the argument goes, not very many people go to the DLGF website. I am very skeptical of the idea that significant numbers of people are poring over these financial reports buried away in the classifieds. The people who are reading these things in the papers are mostly, I would guess, the same people who would go the DLGF website to take a look.
I have to think that this is more about money, and the opinion is not being very forthright about the idea that this is about a source of revenue that newspapers do not want to lose. The newspapers are, after all, free to reprint the information from the DLGF if they want. If this is the sort of information that interests the 3 million readers per week touted by the opinion piece, skipping the publication fee would presumably be a small price to pay. The opinion piece tries to dismiss the cost of newspaper publication as an average of $167 per unit. (That number was for cities and towns. The best number the fiscal report came up with for townships was $300, but it indicated that number might be high.) However, I suspect that when you start adding up all of the units and publication costs, the money paid to these newspapers starts to add up.
To me, having a central location where you can find all of this information when you need it seems like it makes more sense than hoping you catch the edition of the newspaper where the annual financial report was published. And, yes, you could do both — but fundamentally, I just don’t think that many people are paying attention to these reports as they’re published in the newspaper. Regardless of whether my opinion is correct, the headline to this opinion is inflammatory: “Don’t let Indiana lawmakers operate in the shadows.” I think people of good will can disagree about whether local government financial reports are more readily found in the daily paper or in a central, online repository. But accusing these lawmakers of trying to let government “operate in the shadows” based on a proposed shift from local papers to a state website is simply unfair.