HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Advocates for Pennsylvania newspapers and local governments clashed Thursday over a bill that would allow school districts, municipalities and counties to publish legal notices on the Web instead of newsprint.
Editors and publishers who testified for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association told the House Local Government Committee that the legislation would undermine an important source of revenue for their industry and make it harder for many seniors and others who don't use the Internet to locate important public information.
"You can't be heard if you don't know about a public meeting," said Bernard Oravec, publisher of the Williamsport Sun-Gazette.
Proponents told the committee the proposal could save taxpayers millions of dollars a year and provide convenience for a generation of taxpayers who are increasingly computer savvy.
"The new generation that's out there today knows where to go on the websites" to find the notices of public meetings, contract bidding and other government activities, said Elam M. Herr of the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors.
Other groups supporting the measure included the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania League of Cities & Municipalities and the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs.
The bill would allow school boards and government agencies to publish legal notices online instead of in newspapers if the Internet site is registered with the state, linked to the government agency's site and accessible at least 98 percent of the time.
The committee chairman, Lancaster County Republican Tom Creighton, is the bill's sponsor.
This marks the third time in recent years that the bill, one of several pending GOP measures aimed at removing state "mandates," has been introduced, Creighton said.
Several dozen people from newspapers around the state turned out for hearing in a show of opposition to a measure that the PNA estimates would wipe out as many as 1,000 newspaper jobs.
AARP Pennsylvania, the senior citizen advocacy group, also is opposing the bill. Its spokesman cited a 2009 study that showed 40 percent of people older than 50 do not use computers and that 70 percent of those people have no interest in learning to do so.
The PNA panelists said newspapers generally charge their lowest advertising rates for legal notices. They suggested that local government agencies are inflating their present costs by including job offers and other ads that are not legal notices while low-balling the cost of posting legal notices online.
Martin Till, president and publisher of the Lehigh Valley Media Group and president of PennJersey Advance, whose four daily newspapers include The Express-Times in Easton, said the 95 municipalities served by The Express-Times spend an average of $2,800 annually on legal notices. Forty of them spend less than $1,000, he said.
"There's no millions of dollars of savings," Till said.
Ronald Grutza of the boroughs' association found it ironic that the PNA played down the potential cost savings for local agencies.
Newspapers "are the first ones to hold our feet to the fire" if there are allegations of wasteful spending, he said.
The PNA representatives said newspapers remain the best source of information about multiple government agencies in their circulation areas. Many newspapers also publish legal notices online, and in concert with the PNA they also post them online (http://pa.mypublicnotices.com/PublicNotice.asp ).
If the bill becomes law, citizens would have to "scour dozens and dozens of tiny, little-known websites to search out bid requests, job openings and zoning hearings," said Ernest Schreiber, editor of the Lancaster New Era and Lancaster Online.
Proponents said many government entities are already posting legal notices online, in addition to the newspaper versions, and that reliance on the Internet as a source of such information is growing – especially among older Pennsylvanians.
"We do not need statutes that require unnecessary expenditures where the public interest is better served in another way," said Brinda Carroll Penyak of the county commissioners' association.
Small local offices that do not have their own websites are unlikely to immediately begin posting legal notices online if the law is passed but the bill presents "a reasonable alternative" for larger agencies that already are online, Herr said.
"The times are changing," he said.