Every year, an Illinois legislator proposes a bill to remove public notices from being published in newspapers and allow units of government to post them to their websites. They must think they are saving taxpayers money, and that newspapers no longer are relevant.
This year is no different. House Bill 811 has been filed but not yet been assigned to a committee. As other bills that have come and gone before it, HB 811 is a bad idea. Lawmakers should reject it, as they have in the past.
Newspapers have played a vital role in providing transparency about government through the publication of public notices. It’s worked for more than 150 years. Now, with the digital reach of newspapers through their websites and the statewide public notice site run by Illinois newspapers, notifying the public has never been more efficient, effective and impactful. Posting notices to newspaper websites and the statewide site are at no additional cost to government and is intended to provide even greater public access to these notices.
Conversely, there are nearly 7,000 units of government in Illinois. Only about half have a website. How efficient and effective would that be?
Units of government are required by statute to post meeting dates, agendas and minutes. Yet, many don’t. There are more than 1,400 townships in Illinois, and the vast majority don’t have a website but for the ones that do only 53% comply with the required posting of meeting dates, agendas and minutes. Why would different results be expected from the same government units if they control the posting of public notices?
We all know there is money to be saved by being more efficient. How about taking a realistic look at eliminating the seemingly redundant units of government? Illinois has far more units of government that any other state. Florida has more than 7 million more residents than Illinois but fewer than a quarter the number of government units. Drainage districts, road districts and mosquito abatement districts could and should become part of the function of county governments. The largest mosquito abatement district in Illinois is the South Cook County Mosquito Abatement District and it spent less than $100 in 2020 on public notices, which is far less than the $25,000 it spent on memberships and conferences. The cost of public notices is one of the smallest expenses of government entities.
So, it’s not surprising that eliminating public notices from newspapers won’t reduce taxes. Realistically no unit of government is going to lower its tax levy. So, if the Legislature really wants to lower public notice expense and ultimately property taxes it should address the number of governmental entities in the state.
Newspapers across Illinois provide access to public notices and verify compliance by government units. They also serve as a permanent record of public notices.
The majority of the more than 400 newspapers in Illinois are small businesses. Like every other small business, newspapers have been hit hard by the pandemic. Removing public notices will make it even harder for newspapers to do what they do best - serve and inform their communities.