Jon Weber House screenshot

Rep. Jon Weber, R-Rexburg, urges the House to support his public notices bill, HB 53, on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correctly attribute Rep. Bruce Skaug's quote.

BOISE — A bill regarding public notices by Rep. Jon Weber, R-Rexburg, failed to pass the House on Wednesday. The bill would have ended the requirement that public notices be published in newspapers. After debate, the House voted 38-33 against the bill.

Had the bill passed, government bodies could have published public notices on their own websites instead of in newspapers. Currently, Idaho newspapers publish these notices in print and on a free online database.

A public notice is published information regarding activities undertaken by government agencies. It is intended to provide transparency and notify the public to allow citizens time to give input on things happening in their communities.

Weber said the bill would save the government money if it did not have to pay newspapers to print them. He did not think enough people read newspapers to make it worth the cost.

“It is time that we move Idaho from this archaic way of posting public notices and bring us into the 21st century,” Weber said.

Many legislators voiced concerns during debate. Weber stressed that government agencies could still choose to pay newspapers to publish public notices. Newspapers could also choose to run them for free. However, Rep. Tony Wisniewski, R-Post Falls, said calling it optional “is like giving a 5-year-old the option of eating his vegetables,” implying few agencies would spend the money to print them if they were not required to by law. And agencies would not be required to provide public notices to newspapers wanting to run them for free.

“This bill takes away an independent check on government. It’s government that wants this bill to pass. It’s all government agencies — the fox guarding the henhouse, so to speak, if you pass this bill,” Rep. Bruce Skaug, R-Nampa, said.

Whether or not people read physical newspapers was a topic of debate. Rexburg representatives Weber and Ron Nate pointed out that most people rely on the internet for information. They did not mention that the Pew Research Report used by Weber in his committee hearing last week indicated the majority of Americans who get their information online do so through news websites.

Wisniewski expressed his belief that, though not everyone reads them, having public notices in newspapers still makes information more widely known in a community.

“We have to remember that a lot of people who read the notices are our friends, neighbors and relatives. I’m embarrassed to tell you that we once found out about an arrest record for my own son trespassing, through a neighbor reading the legal notices and giving that information to us,” Wisniewski said.

Some noted how difficult the new bill would make it to find a public notice. All government agencies would publish notices on their own websites. There would be no specification as to where a public notice must appear on a website. There would be no central directory. Legislators pointed out that Idaho has thousands of district websites, including more than 900 tax district websites.

“We’re making it much, much more difficult for the average citizen to find these legal notices if we vote yes,” Rep. Randy Armstrong, R-Inkom, said.

Armstrong also expressed confusion that under the new bill, public notices would be kept in a “permanent archive” for a maximum of 10 years. After that, there would be no record of them. He noted some Idaho newspapers have archives going back more than 100 years that can be read at public libraries.

”Permanent should mean permanent,” Armstrong said.

Another argument was whether the state was technologically advanced enough for this bill. Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy, R-Genesee, said she represented a district that spans a “large geographic area, but also spans a very large distance in technology.”

“There’s a lot of places in my district where there’s no cellphone access. There’s very little access to the internet. And that weekly newspaper makes a huge difference,” Troy said.

Last week, Weber quoted incorrect statistics about public notice costs in a House State Affairs committee hearing.

“I had a report and study done from the research library and in conjunction with the Controller’s Office on Transparent Idaho. From 2016 to the present day, over $9.4 million of taxpayer dollars (were) spent on state agencies’ advertising and legal notices in the state,” Weber told the committee.

Chief Deputy Controller Joshua Whitworth told the Post Register that was not the correct number. A computer error had caused the number to originally show up as $9.4 million. Upon correcting the error, the Controller’s Office found that state agencies spent “approximately $7.1 million” on notices and advertisements between 2016 to 2021. The state does not keep track of how much it spends on public notices alone, so $7.1 million includes advertising. Unlike public notices, advertisement spending is money the state chooses to spend. It includes television ads, social media ads, website ads and newspaper ads. The government chooses to advertise for a number of things, from programs to government job listings.

In his opening to the House debate today, Weber said “state agencies, counties, cities, school districts (and) highway districts spend over a combined $3 million a year on print public notices.”

Whitworth said he did not know where Weber received that number since state agencies do not currently record public notice spending separately from advertisement spending.

Weber did not respond to Post Register requests for comment.