Scott MacKay Commentary
8:51 am
Mon May 16, 2011

How to save a million taxpayer dollars

PROVIDENCE, RI – In this time of recession and state and municipal budget red ink, one would think the politicians would be looking at every dollar of spending. WRNI's Scott MacKay suggests a painless way to save taxpayers a $1 million a year.

House Speaker Gordon Fox said it best three weeks ago when he opposed Governor Chafee's plan for extending sales taxes to some items that are now tax-free.

"Before we go to the taxpayers and say we need to increase your taxes, we need to build some credibility with them to say that we have turned over every stone, every nickel and dime."

One easy way to save money for our taxpayers would be to approve legislation pending in both the Rhode Island House and Senate that would get rid of requirement that cities and towns buy newspaper advertising practically every time any arm of local government does anything.

The most obvious examples are school committees that hold meetings regularly and must advertise to meet the state Open Meetings Law requirement that they give written notice of any meeting and its agenda a minimum of 48 hours before the date.

The law also states that a town or city must advertise in a newspaper any time a community holds an election, sets a tax rate, proposes a zoning change, executes a tax sale or draws new political districts.

In Rhode Island, all of this advertising must be placed in a newspaper of general circulation, which is usually a daily newspaper, although the Smithfield School Committee recently received approval from the attorney general's office to advertise in the weekly Valley Breeze.

The Rhode Island Association of School Committees estimates that the advertising requirements cost school departments around the state more than $200,000 annually. And the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns estimates our communities spend another $800,000 a year.

These rules might have made sense in 1950, or even 1990, but in a wired world they are an anachronism. We communicate electronically these days; the social security administration is eliminating snail mail letters in favor of on-line notices of benefits. The Social Security Administration estimates this will save taxpayers $70 million each year.

Even the newspapers that benefit from this form of government welfare recognize that the future is on the web. All of the newspapers publish news on web sites and sell web advertising. The Newport Daily News has put a pay wall up around its site and the Providence Journal is expected to soon follow suit.

While more and more Rhode Islanders get information from the Internet, fewer and fewer of us buy a daily newspaper. The Journal's daily circulation is down to about 91,800, way below the 200,000 or so the Journal and its now defunct sister newspaper, the Evening Bulletin, commanded two decades ago.

Schools and communities have web sites, telephone trees, broadcast statements and text messages that provide information needed by citizens. For example, when it snows, the schools don't wait for the newspaper to publish.

Don't expect the newspapers to voluntarily give up this welfare. The Rhode Island Daily Newspaper Association is paying influential State House lobbyist Joseph Walsh $20,000 a month to fight the legislation.

Some worry that because 20 percent of the state's citizens don't have access to the Internet at home means the state should keep the requirement for a few more years. John Marion, lobbyist for Common Cause of Rhode Island, said his organization is against getting rid of the advertising mandate because not everyone has a computer.

But not everyone can afford to pay $1 for the daily or $3 for the Sunday Journal.

And Marion admits it may be time to revise Common Cause's stance, saying, ``its obvious the school committees shouldn't be subsidizing the Providence Journal.''

The Internet is widely available for free at public venues, particularly libraries.

Sen. Josh Miller of Cranston, a sponsor of the measure to remove the newspaper only advertising requirement, says, ``This is about getting into the 21st Century and even giving the taxpayers a break.''

If anybody needs a break these days, it's the beleaguered Rhode Island taxpayer.

Do you have insight or expertise on this topic? Please email us, we'd like to hear from you. news@wrni.org.

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