A promise by Maine's daily and weekly newspapers to cough up some serious cash apparently contributed to Gov. John Baldacci's decision to pocket veto a bill that would have shifted state government's lucrative public-notice advertising - announcements of public hearings, rule-making procedures and other government actions - from the print media to the Web.
Not so oddly enough, none of the state's papers bothered to report on what looks suspiciously like a backroom deal until it was completed (and then only in the form of an Associated Press story that gave no details), even though these same papers published numerous editorials calling for the defeat of the bill in order to preserve "transparency" in government.
The first - ahem - public notice that something had occurred came on April 22, in a press release from the governor's office announcing the veto. In that release, Baldacci is quoted as justifying his action in part because, "publishers have agreed to rate reductions that will save more than $1.1 million over five years while maintaining public notices in newspapers."
While that may sound like a lot of money, it's actually less than half what taxpayers would have saved if Buckfield state Rep. Terry Hayes' original bill had survived. Under that measure, the state would have put most public notices on a special Web site, rather than publicizing the information with paid ads in the print media. That would have cut the state budget by about $450,000 a year - more than twice what the newspapers are pledging in rate reductions.
Over its tortured course through the Legislature, Hayes' measure was the subject of intense lobbying by the newspaper industry (although there was little in the way of reporting on that activity) and was amended several times, requiring more of the advertising to remain in print and reducing the savings to about $200,000 per year, or about the same amount the publishers are now offering.
Why did the newspaper industry still feel it was necessary to offer a rate break to get the bill vetoed? Maybe it had something to do with another of the provisions in the legislation. In order to save money, Hayes would have allowed some public notices to be published in free newspapers, what a Lewiston Sun Journal editorial termed "advertising-laden shoppers." As if the Sun Journal had no interest in being "advertising-laden."
The kind of newspapers you have to pay for weren't about to let any more of their ad revenue slip away to the kind of newspapers you don't have to pay for. If the price for making sure that didn't happen was more than a million bucks, it was still cheap in the long run. Assuming, of course, that the kind of newspapers you have to pay for have a long run left.
Plus, there's all that transparency in government they preserved.
- Filed April 24, 2008
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at email@example.com