Local governments to identify cost of public notices

Under a new Texas law, political subdivisions other than junior college districts will have to include a line item in their budgets showing how much they spend on notices they are required by law to publish in a newspaper. SB 622 by Burton, enacted this year during the regular session of the 85th Legislature, requires the line item to allow a clear comparison between expenditures on statutorily required notices in the proposed budget and actual expenditures for the notices in the preceding year. The new requirement applies to proposed budgets for fiscal years starting on or after January 1, 2018.

Current law requires public notice of meetings, contracts, and certain other activities by political subdivisions to be printed in a local newspaper, but declining circulation of print newspapers in recent years has led to questions about whether this method is still cost effective and sufficient to reach Texans. The Joint Committee on Advertising Public Notices, established through HCR 96 by the 84th Legislature in 2015, heard testimony on notice requirements at a public hearing in August 2016. The committee recommended that print notice requirements remain in place but said the Legislature should continue to study them. According to the committee’s interim report, the true cost of advertising public notices is uncertain, as local governments often aggregate these costs with other advertising expenses.

Supporters of SB 622 said it would promote transparency in government and allow lawmakers to distinguish how much political subdivisions spend on printing statutorily required public notices in newspapers from how much they spend for other advertising. They said it would improve understanding of the true cost of the notices and facilitate further study of the issue.

If providing this information were voluntary instead of mandatory, as proposed by some critics, it would be difficult to ascertain the actual cost of required notices, supporters of the bill said. They said gathering the information could help the Legislature avoid placing an onerous requirement on local governments.

Critics of SB 622 said some smaller political subdivisions that outsource their data processing could incur costs or otherwise have difficulty complying with the bill. They said the Legislature instead should make it voluntary for local governments to itemize the costs of printing public notices in newspapers.

by Mary Beth Schaefer

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