Updated Mar 13, 2013 - 5:05 pm
House GOP, Democrats unite to defend transparency
PHOENIX -- An effort to allow some cities and towns to post public notices online instead of in paid newspaper advertisements divided the Arizona House of Representatives Wednesday, with Republicans wary of unchecked government joining Democrats to defeat the measure.
Nearly a dozen Republicans in the GOP-led House crossed the aisle in the 26-31 vote that defeated the measure endorsed by House Speaker Andy Tobin. The GOP lawmakers said they didn't trust government leaders to provide transparency without outside observers such as newspapers.
They predicted cities and towns would hide the notices on government websites, or quickly remove the postings, leaving no permanent record.
``We want to see more transparency in what government is doing,'' said Republican Rep. Jeff Dial of Chandler, who noted he ran for office because he didn't trust government.
Democratic Rep. Lisa Otondo, of Yuma, said government websites should not be put in charge of the public record because they are updated by government employees and are vulnerable to hackers.
Proponents of the measure said they wanted to free cities and towns from having to spend public dollars on financially struggling newspapers with declining or insignificant circulations. Communities with populations smaller than 100,000 people would still be required to publish notices in newspapers under the proposed law.
``There is no boogeyman in this,'' said Republican Rep. Eddie Farnsworth of Gilbert. ``It is simply the idea that we are going to be good stewards of the public funds.''
Republican Rep. David Livingston of Peoria joked that he felt sorry for lawmakers who had to wait ``in this digital age'' to find out news from newspapers instead of getting instant Internet updates.
In a strategic move, Republican Rep. Warren Petersen of Gilbert, the bill's sponsor, also voted against the legislation, which allowed him to request that it be brought back Monday for another vote. Petersen said he would seek feedback on potential amendments, including language that would require local governments to publish only some notices in newspapers.
Petersen said he found comments about government mistrust laughable because House lawmakers work for and represent the Arizona government.
``Who are you talking about? You are them,'' he said after the floor vote.
Newspaper leaders have rallied against the bill, while local governments back it. Smaller newspapers would be especially hit by the loss of ad revenue, and opponents worried the proposed law could force some publications to stop printing.
Similar bills in recent years have failed to win passage.
The debate Wednesday often focused on the future of the newspaper industry, which has struggled in recent years as readers and advertisers embraced the Internet.
Republican Rep. John Kavanagh of Fountain Hills said public notices published in newspapers are largely overlooked.
``I don't go to the public notices section to find out about things,'' he said. ``They read about it in the news section of the newspaper ... or now they get emails or Twitter feeds and all the other stuff.''
Republican Rep. Bruce Wheeler of Tucson said newspapers are a permanent product that better serve the public compared with frequently updated websites.
``It's not about whether you or I or the majority of the people read them. That's not the purpose. The purpose is it's there to have a record,'' he said.
Kavanagh said lawmakers need to be more concerned about local government struggling to balance budgets.
``Guess what? Cities and towns need revenue so they won't close parks,'' he said.
Cristina Silva can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/cristymsilva