Arkansas public notice bill gets delayed for fiscal impact study

Newspaper owners, executives turn out in force to oppose it

By: - February 22, 2023 5:32 pm
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An Arkansas House committee delayed action Wednesday on a bill that would allow local governments to publish certain public notices online instead of in a local newspaper.

Republican Rep. Frances Cavenaugh of Walnut Ridge pitched House Bill 1399 as a cost-saving measure for county and municipal governments, which are now required to publish notices of budgets, ordinances, delinquent property taxes and elections in newspapers.

Local governments can still choose to print notices in a newspaper but no longer would be required to do so, Cavenaugh told the House City, County and Local Affairs Committee.

“They can still choose to [put notices in a newspaper], but this gives them the option to put it to a website if that’s what fits best for their county,” she said.

The committee adopted an amendment Cavenaugh introduced Wednesday morning that she said will phase in requirements over five years for posting certain notices, which she said would avoid a sudden financial impact on newspapers.

“We’re in a transition period” from getting information from newspapers to getting information online, she said.

The amendment also calls for a single, third-party website for posting local government public notices. The original bill required cities and counties to post to a website with the .gov domain name.

The committee postponed voting on the amended bill after Rep. Carol Dalby (R-Texarkana) asked that the Bureau of Legislative Research review the fiscal impact of the legislation on state and local government. If requested, House rules require that bills not be voted upon until such studies are completed.

The committee nevertheless allowed testimony for and against the bill to continue because many people in the packed hearing room had traveled long distances to be heard. Four witnesses spoke against the proposal and four in support of it before time ran out.

Robyn Yarbro, general manager for three south Arkansas newspapers owned by WEHCO Media, told the committee that “removing notices will absolutely hurt your community newspapers, the people we employ and the citizens we serve.” WEHCO is the parent company of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

 “It’s not enough to post it somewhere,” Yarbro said, adding that an estimated 110,000 Arkansas households lacked broadband access as of the end of 2022.

She challenged the contention that local governments are pushing for HB1399’s passage “purely for financial reasons.”  The cost of public notices to counties served by her newspapers amounts to less than 1% of those governments’ total expenditures, she said.

“We should all be asking ourselves why they’re pushing so hard for something that clearly will not make the financial impact they would like you to believe it will,” Yarbro said.

Joyce Ajayi, a policy analyst with the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics, testified in favor of the bill, arguing that “it will greatly improve government transparency.”

ACRE studies government transparency and produces annual reports on the issue, she said.

Its upcoming report in March will show that “county-level transparency has improved significantly,” partly because of Act 564 of 2019. That law required counties to post their budgets online.

“Before that time, only eight counties published their budgets online,” Ajayi said. “Today, all 75 counties publish their fiscal information online.”

Cities do not have the same mandate, and only 34 of 112 first-class cities publish similar information online, she said. HB 1399 will resolve that issue, she said.

Ajayi also said the bill will save local governments money and expand the availability of government information for citizens. 

Rep. Mike Holcomb (R-Pine Bluff) told those who did not get a chance to speak that the committee would place the bill back on its agenda as a priority once the fiscal impact statement is ready so that anyone wishing to return to voice their position could do so.

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Sonny Albarado
Sonny Albarado

In his 50-year career, Sonny Albarado has been an investigations editor, a business editor, a city editor, an environmental reporter and a government reporter at newspapers in Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana. He retired from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2020 after serving as projects editor for 12 ½ years and returned to professional journalism in 2022 to lead the Arkansas Advocate. He is a former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists and a current member of the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.