Publishing budget data in print good for democracy

An informed citizenry is at the heart of an effective democracy. The more people know about how their tax dollars are spent, the better able are they to discuss issues with their elected representatives.

The Indiana General Assembly last year removed the requirement that local government agencies publish their proposed budgets and proposed tax rates in newspapers as part of the notice of budget hearings. That change became effective this year and will remain in effect unless legislators reinstate the rule about publishing that information in print.

Government bodies still are required to post official notices of meetings at least 10 days in advance, but they are not required to publish the budget. Online access to this material is considered adequate.

But adequate for whom?

Many people do not have ready access to a computer and the Internet. Others have difficulty navigating online databases to find the material they want.

A statewide website administered by the Hoosier State Press Association publishes those budgets and notices, which are placed in newspapers around the state. The Republic publishes notices on its website, therepublic.com, that are placed by the local government entity. Now that the requirement to publish budgets has been eliminated, those notices will not appear on our website.

So is the public truly being served when they can’t easily see this valuable information?

When it was published in print, it was easy for anyone to see. In addition, the information was immutable. It couldn’t be changed; whereas, an online source can be altered, and it sometimes takes a cybersleuth to figure out where or when changes were made.

In the most recent session of the Legislature, state Sen. Sue Glick, R-LaGrange, presented a bill that would have preserved the publication of a local government unit’s proposed budget, levy and estimated property tax rate as part of a notice of the unit’s public hearing on its budget. The bill was supported by the League of Women Voters-Indiana, Farm Bureau, Common Cause, Citizens Action Coalition and the Hoosier State Press Association, of which The Republic is a member.

The amended bill was passed out of the House Local Government Committee, chaired by state Rep. John Price, R-Greenwood, with an 11-2 vote. But then the bill was recommitted to the House Ways and Means Committee, where it died when the chairman, state Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, refused to give the bill a hearing.

One of the arguments for online publication is that it is less expensive than advertising in print, but Price pointed out that when you divide the cost among all constituents in a particular government’s jurisdiction, the cost is just pennies per person.

We already know people read public-notice advertising and support publishing them in the newspaper. In a survey last year by American Opinion Research, 64 percent of Hoosiers said government bodies should be required to publish legal ads.

In a democracy, it is vital that citizens be fully informed about what their elected and appointed officials are doing. Without that information, open and transparent government is undermined.

We commend Price on his efforts to preserve this aspect of open government and hope he will continue the fight in the upcoming session.

Lawmakers should take that step toward openness in government and help Hoosiers keep better track of what’s going on in local government and to keep tabs on government spending. Keeping public officials accountable is at the heart of the democratic process.

We also urge governments to go beyond publishing the information only online and make it easily available to the general public.

At issue

Governments are only required to publish their proposed budgets online.

Our point

Vital government information should be made available in a form that is easily accessible to the public.