TEXAS VIEW: Officials could be trying again to avoid public notice mandate

THE POINT: Over the years legislators have offered bills attempting to escape accountability and leave taxpayers in the dark.

Texas lawmakers appear ready to make yet another effort to weaken state laws that keep the people informed of what they’re doing and how they’re spending taxpayers’ money. The latest effort offers an alternative that is both inadequate and a duplication of existing resources.

For the past several legislative sessions, various legislators have offered bills, often prodded by local officials and organizations that represent them, attempting to escape accountability to the public. A popular target is the requirement that public notices such as changes in tax rates and requests for bids be published in the local newspaper of record.

Recent efforts to escape the requirement have promoted the idea of replacing newspaper notice with postings on governmental bodies’ websites. House Bill 2578 would create a public bulletin board on the state comptroller’s website where public notices will be posted. The bill, currently being reviewed by the House State Affairs Committee, currently doesn’t call for the elimination of newspaper notices, but past efforts leave open government advocates concerned that an amendment to that affect could be added as an amendment as the bill progresses through the legislature.

State Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, is on the State Affairs Committee.

HB 2578 would create a web-based listing of public notices from across the state, maintained by state employees. Such a clearinghouse already exists; it’s texaslegalnotices.com, maintained by the Texas Press Association. We certainly wouldn’t claim redundancy — more public notice certainly is better than less — but the comptroller’s listing would add to the state bureaucracy while the TPA site costs taxpayers nothing. In addition, some people likely would have more confidence in a site run by a neutral third party, if only to ensure that the government site is properly maintained and complete.

Neither site, however, fully replaces newspaper publication. Website postings provide a great service to those who actively look of such notices, such as contractors looking for invitations to bid on new projects or public watchdogs who know budgeting calendars or are vigilant for bond announcements, charter change efforts and other issues that are of public interest.

Most people, however, aren’t likely to frequent such sites to see if any public news announcements might be posted. Newspaper publication enables readers to see such announcements as they peruse the pages of their local paper. Such incidental discovery might be the only way many taxpayers learn of government proposals, and voice their opinions, before action is taken.

A state-based listing is welcome if it creates more places where voters can see what their officials are doing and how they propose to spend taxpayers’ money. However, it should not be used as part of an effort to steer such information away from the public.

Valley Morning Star