SHERIDAN — On third reading Friday, the Wyoming House defeated a bill some legislators said would limit government transparency by moving public notices out of newspapers.
“I’m not quite there with the notion that we pull the funding that makes sure that we get information out to our public,” Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, said.
Senate File 17, sponsored by the Senate Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee, would have allowed cities, towns, counties and school districts to move their public notices — including meeting minutes, salaries and ordinances — from the pages of the local newspaper to those entities’ websites.
The bill was brought to the floor by Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, who argued the move online was essential as many local governments face budget cuts. Nethercott said local counties spend anywhere from $11,000 to $101,000 each year complying with publication requirements, with Sheridan County spending $28,000.
While some legislators focused on how the state’s newspapers would be impacted if notices moved online, Sen. Drew Perkins, R-Casper, said the bill was, first and foremost, about getting important public information to Wyoming’s citizens.
“It was disturbing to me that this bill has become an argument about supporting our newspapers and local communities,” Perkins said. “To me, that’s not the right argument and not the right consideration…. I hope that as we consider this, your vote is not about whether or not this money goes to support newspapers…This is really an issue about giving notice, and I hope we focus on that and not about the financial health of our newspapers.”
Sen. R.J. Kost, R-Powell, said that, while the state should continue to discuss the possibility of moving public notices online, now was not the time to make the move.
“I really feel like… maybe we start talking about it,” Kost said. “But right now, it’s imperative that we…respect those older people…Let’s honor them by allowing them to sit down with that cup of coffee and read those minutes or whatever else they need to read.”
Local Sens. Bo Biteman, R-Parkman, and Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, were among those who voted against the bill. Biteman said many local websites simply weren’t ready to distribute important public notice information.
“I think it would have helped the case and the cause of the argument…if they would have had their websites up-to-date with the minutes on there and showed us what they could do,” Biteman said. “But if you go and look across the state right now at these county and city and local government websites, the information is sparse at best, outdated and sometimes nonexistent… So I think they really could have shown us what they could do, and I don’t think they’re quite ready for that yet.”
During a previous discussion on the bill, Kinskey said publication spending made up roughly 0.12 percent of the average annual budget for counties and 0.17 percent for cities and towns. For that relatively small investment, the newspapers reach a paid circulation of more than 98,000, Kinskey said.
Senate File 17 was killed with a vote of 9-20. The bill was previously approved by the Senate on first reading Wednesday with a vote of 15 to 12.