Editor’s note: The Idaho Statesman is a member of the Newspaper Association of Idaho.
Idaho has more than 900 taxing districts including 44 counties, 100-plus cities, 100-plus school districts and smaller districts, such as sewer, cemetery, library and others.
Under state law, when one of these entities wants to purchase or lease goods or services in excess of $50,000, it must go to competitive bid. But that might change when it comes to IT contracts under new legislation brought forward by Rep. Jerald Raymond, R-Menan.
Right now, if the bid’s value is between $50,000 and $100,000, the entity must contact no fewer than three vendors to solicit the bid.
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If the value is more than $100,000, the vendor must publish two legal notices soliciting the bid in the “official newspaper” of record for that taxing district.
Raymond wants to remove this requirement for IT purchases valued at $100,000 or more and give the taxing districts the option of either putting a legal notice in the newspaper or posting it on their website, or both.
He said that would save taxing districts money because they will not have to pay to publish a legal notice, and it will increase transparency because residents and vendors can go to the taxing district’s website to find out which projects it has put out for bid.
The House State Affairs Committee on Tuesday heard Raymond’s bill, voting 9-6 to send it to the House floor.
How legal notices work now
Idaho already has a centralized online location where residents and vendors can go to see what types of things taxing districts are putting out to bid, said Jeremy Pisca, an attorney and lobbyist representing the Newspaper Association of Idaho. The group is a trade association comprising the majority of daily and weekly newspapers in Idaho, including the Idaho Statesman. The association opposes the bill.
“Go to Idaho public notices dot com,” Pisca said. “Every Idaho newspaper that publishes legal notices pushes those up to a website that is run by the Newspaper Association of Idaho.” Pisca said the website is paid for by Newspaper Association of Idaho membership dues.
“It is a fully searchable online database. You can search by city, you can search by county, you can search by keyword. You can search the entire state,” he said. “So, I would argue, not only are your citizens being able to see it in their local paper, but those bidding parties that are already interested in IT contracts can already go to the centralized website and find all of them, statewide.”
Will Goodman, Mountain Home School District director of operations and board member with Idaho Education Technology Association, spoke in support of the bill.
“This bill helps us save a significant amount of money. Publishing in the local newspapers is very costly to a district,” he said. “Some math we have done, looking around the state, about $240,000 in taxpayer money is spent in advertising (requests for proposals) and other legal notices in papers.”
“There is a built-in tax every time we go to bid,” he said. “Every time we go out to bid, we know we have to pay to publish in a newspaper.”
Pisca explained to the committee that newspapers cannot charge whatever they want for publishing state-mandated legal notices; state law sets that amount.
“These rates are absolutely dictated by the Idaho Legislature,” Pisca said. “The bigger the ad, the more it is going to cost.”
An independently printed legal notice in hard-copy form is “the best legal proof that things were done correctly,” Pisca said.
By printing the notices, they are forever archived, he said.
“You can always go back and find and prove that notification was given and that it was done so correctly and that it was done so adequately,” he said. “It does not allow the government to sweep certain bids under the table. They are out there for all to see.”
What about putting notices online?
Pisca also cautioned committee members about making the assumption everyone gets their information via websites.
“Rural areas and aging populations statistics show that A: they have a lack of broadband and B: aging populations just don’t gravitate toward websites as often,” he said. “They are no less citizens, they are entitled to know what their government is doing as well.”
Inkom GOP Rep. Randy Armstrong and Boise Democratic Rep. John Gannon both voted against the bill, pointing out that expecting residents and vendors to keep tabs on numerous websites is onerous and could lead to less transparency.
“We’ve got 900 taxing districts, many can be under the radar,” Gannon said.
“If the bid is going out to some mysterious site, it does seem we are eliminating a large measure of transparency,” as opposed to printing a legal notice in a newspaper, Armstrong added.
To prove their points, during the committee meeting, Gannon went to the Idaho public notice website and learned about a bid opportunity in Glenns Ferry along with bid opportunities in other areas of the state. Armstrong looked up one school district’s website. He could not find the names of the district’s board members or the times of basketball games. Smaller school districts may have a hard time modernizing or updating their websites to accurately post and archive state-mandated legal notices.
“I am not sure the average school district is ready to do all this,” Armstrong said.
Rep. Julianne Young, R-Blackfoot, pointed out to the committee that this legislation applies only to IT bids of $100,000 or more.
“So while it may true that we have many taxing districts, I doubt that all 900 of these taxing districts would ever solicit a bid for IT in excess of $100,000,” said Young, who voted in favor of the bill.
Nampa GOP Rep. Brent Crane voted against the bill, saying he supports a one-stop-shopping approach, “instead of a patchwork system.”
“We need one portal where the citizens of Idaho can go to find where these legal notices are,” Crane said. “We have over 100 school districts. If each one of them advertises for it, it is going to be in 100-plus different places.”
Crane said he thinks the newspaper landscape is changing as more people shift from reading hard-copy newspaper editions to digital ones, and, the state and its legal notice requirements, must adjust, too.
“People are using online mediums instead of print mediums, and I believe it is the future,” Crane said “The general public in Idaho should have an expectation that if they are going to bid on any type of procurement for state dollars, this is the website that you go to, ... instead of a patchwork system that I think this [legislation] will create.”
Raymond’s bill now heads to House floor for a full vote.