The lamp dimmed on open government this week with the Indiana House of Representatives voting 62-34 to eliminate the requirement that notices of sheriff's sales be published in newspapers.
The argument for overturning this time-honored practice of having the upcoming sales published as legal notices in the pages of local newspapers, at least as far as I can tell, is the belief (wrongheaded as I see it) of the bill's sponsor that the requirement is nothing more than a subsidy of the newspaper industry.
Well, I can attest that newspapers ain't getting rich publishing the notices, no siree.
But there is a charge for publication, a cost which covers the expense to prepare, print and distribute the notices — basic labor and production costs.
As Steve Key of the Hoosier State Press Association pointed out in his column, the payment is for the service of publishing the legal notices, it is not a subsidy.
And while that initial charge is paid by the sheriff's department, it is also an expense that is recouped at the time of a property's sale.
The sheriff's department gets its money back.
Supporters of the legislation — House Bill 1212 — say it would be cheaper to post the notices on a web site, something that would likely add to the burdens of already understaffed county government offices — labor and production costs to be borne by taxpayers without a process for reimbursement.
And, too, publishing them on obscure web sites would make them less likely to be accessed by the public, more likely to be seen by those who have a vested interest in keeping the numbers of bidders on the properties to a minimum — which ultimately hurts taxpayers.
Supporters of HB 1212 say requiring someone to be a subscriber to a newspaper reduces the possibility of the notices being widely read. A subscription comes with a cost.
Well, so does access to a web site — the cost of “subscribing” to an internet service provider or the cost of cellphone service not to mention the price of a computer or smart phone.
But, supporters of the legislation counter, you can go to a public library and surf the internet for free — using, of course, taxpayer subsidized computers and internet services
And while you're there you can also read the newspaper … for free.
While admittedly there has been some decline in the number of paid subscribers to local newspapers, I can't see that there has been any appreciable accompanying decline in the readership of local newspapers — anyway not given the number of people who seem to know an awful lot about what's being printed in them.
Government web sites? Not so much.
To substitute the openness of publication in a general-circulation newspaper with a system that seems tailor-made for obfuscation and such abuses as to be likened to insider trading is a definite step backward — a move away from transparency and toward the opaqueness of the notorious smoke-filled room.
The lamp has dimmed but it has not gone out — not yet.
House Bill 1212 now heads to the state Senate, where hopefully wiser heads will prevail.