Lawmakers say changes should be explored on spending discrepancy between state, local governments on public notices

Published: Sep. 28, 2021 at 9:31 PM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Multiple state lawmakers believe the legislature should look at changes to state laws involving mandatory publications from counties and cities. But, lawmakers don’t all agree on the specific changes needed.

Our KCRG-TV9 i9 Investigative Team found state laws require counties and cities to publish government proceedings in newspapers. But, the same laws don’t apply to Iowa’s state government. The result is a dramatic disparity between local and state governments on spending related to public notices.

Over the last five fiscal years, the city of Cedar Rapids published 1,957 public notices for $178,400.96. The state legislature paid about $585. Smaller cities, like the city of Marion, also have to pay for public notices. They spent around $17,000 each of the last two fiscal years on public notices.

Rep. Jane Bloomingdale, a Republican who represents Worth, Michell, Howard, and parts of Winneshiek Counties, said in an email there was a discussion on the issue during the legislative session, but no consensus was reached. She said those conversations should continue with a focus on the types of communities being served.

“I also think we have to look at our communities,” Bloomingdale said, in the email. “Rural communities seem to rely on their local newspapers and look forward to the weekly publishing more than our more urban areas.”

Rep. Jeff Shipley, a Republican who represents Davis, Van Buren, and parts of Jefferson Counties, said in an email he wants to get rid of the requirement entirely. He said conversations ended because politicians didn’t want to upset newspapers, who had lobbyists working against those conversations.

“The newspaper lobbyist made a stink because it costs them revenues/profit,” Shipley said, in the email. “Somehow that ended the discussion because politicians didn’t want to upset the editor of the local paper.”

Rep. Amy Nielsen, a Democrat who represents portions of Johnson County that include North Liberty and Tiffin, said in an email she believes the public should have more notices about topics being discussed in the legislature.

Sen. Todd Taylor, a Democrat who represents much of southwest Linn county, including parts of Cedar Rapids, Fairfax, and Walford, said in an email he believes the laws need to be reviewed. But, he said he doesn’t believe changes should be made until more people are connected online.

“We have made strides toward making broadband accessible to every corner of our state however, we have not achieved that yet,” Taylor said. “These required public notices can help connect citizens to their government at the local level and that’s important.”

Susan Patterson Plank, who is the executive director of the Iowa Newspaper Association, said the lack of internet access across the state is a reason counties and cities still need to publish meeting minutes and agendas in newspapers. She also said spending on public notices is a small percentage of government budgets, like copy paper.

“Necessities like soap in the bathrooms, and other things like that, all those things are the cost of government,” Patterson Plank said. “And informing your citizens is probably one of the most important things you can do. So when you think about that cost-benefit ratio. It’s not very high.”

Local governments pay a fixed rate on public notices, which is based on a formula. The publications must also be a certain size font, so it is readable. The Iowa Newspaper Association also puts all public notices on an aggregated online website.

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