HSPA fighting two anti-public notice bills

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Hoosier State Press Association is fighting two bills that attack the concept of publication of public notices.

H.B. 1310 would place a $300 cap on what a government unit could pay for the placement of a public notice in its local newspaper. The bill was authored by Rep. David Wolkins, R-Warsaw. He’s carrying the bill at the request of Rep. Wendy McNamara, R-Evansville.

Steve Key, executive director and general counsel of HSPA, said the bill is a variation of language that was amended into S.B. 535 last year by Rep. Wolkins. That committee amendment had a $250 cap. It was removed from S.B. 535, authored by Sen. Phil Boots, R-Crawfordsville, because it was non-germane to the bill.

Wolkins’ bill has been assigned to the House Local Government Committee, chaired by Rep. Dennis Zent, R-Angola.

Key and Steve Wolff of The Corydon Group, whom HSPA has hired for lobbying support in 2020, met with Wolkins last week. After walking through the ramifications of the bill, Wolkins indicated he would abide by Rep. Zent’s decision on the fate of the bill. If Zent declined to hear the bill, Wolkins would not fight that decision. If Zent decided to give the bill a hearing, Wolkins said he would offer a major amendment, but didn’t provide information as to what those changes would be.

When then-President George W. Bush visited Indiana, he specifically lauded the published report as an example of a good accountability tool for education.

Key was able to reach Zent later in the week. Zent said he would not give H.B. 1310 a hearing in his Local Government Committee. Without a hearing, the bill will die.

HSPA also is working on H.B. 1003, an education matters bill authored by Rep. Jordan, R-Bremen. As introduced, H.B. 1003 includes a provision to eliminate the publication requirement for the annual school performance report.

Rather than publish the performance reports in local newspapers, the school districts would only be required to report the information to the Indiana Department of Education.

Rep. Jordan calls H.B. 1003 the “School Freedom Bill” because it gives the school districts flexibility in dealing with multiple state law requirements.

Testifying before the House Education Committee last week, Key said school freedom is appropriate when the legislature has moved to give parents more freedom of choice in where to send their children. But he added, to exercise that choice, parents rely on government transparency and accountability to make informed choices.

The published school performance report has given important information to help make such choices. When the current format was created by the state legislature, Hamilton County real estate agents reported that property values were impacted because families were making home-buying decisions based on the published reports, Key said.

When then-President George W. Bush visited Indiana, he specifically lauded the published report as an example of a good accountability tool for education.

Key pointed out to the committee that the legislature would be trading a notice in newspapers, which three million adult Hoosiers read at least once a week, for the DOE website where the performance reports recorded 14,500 unique pageviews over the entire year of 2019.

After the Education Committee meeting, Rep. Jordan said he was a coin-toss flip as to whether the provision should remain or be removed from his education matters bill. HSPA has been told there may be an amendment to the language to require a summary of the performance report be published in the newspaper with a reference to where it can be found in its entirety.

Testifying in favor of the elimination were representatives of the Indiana Association of Independent Schools, Indiana Association of School Business Officials, Indiana Urban School Association, Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents and the state Department of Education.

Key notes that all those favoring the elimination of the publication requirement are entities that are held accountable for the level of performance of Indiana schools. All those testifying against the publication requirement cited cost savings, but did not address whether notice on government websites was more efficient.

During the hearing, Rep. Tony Cook, R-Cicero, spoke in favor of eliminating the publication requirement. Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, indicated a preference for the elimination of the requirement through his questioning of Key.

Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, was the only committee member who asked a question indicating his support for the publication requirement.

On Wednesday, Jan. 22, H.B. 1003 was altered by an amendment offered by House Education Committee chair Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis. Rather than eliminate the publication requirement, the amendment would require a school corporation or charter school to publish a summary of the report that includes a reference as to where a reader could find the entire report online.

As of publication deadline, Key had not had a chance to read the actual language but indicated a concern that the amendment may not give any direction as to what should be included in a meaningful summary. The decision may be up to individual school districts, which would create a hodge-podge of information provided or virtually no information put into the hands of Hoosiers.

The bill next goes before the full House for potential amendments and a vote for passage. HSPA will continue to work the bill as it moves forward.

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