A measure to allow state and county agencies to stop publishing certain official notices in Hawaii’s daily newspapers was approved by a key Senate committee Thursday despite objections from the publisher of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and other critics.

Senate Bill 2111 would allow Hawaii government agencies to publish some public notices on the agencies’ web sites instead of in the newspapers, which Senate Judiciary Chairman Karl Rhoads said “would save the state a lot of money.”

The bill was part of a package of measures introduced by Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s administration, and is backed by a half-dozen county and state agencies including the Hawaii Tourism Authority and the state Departments of Land and Natural Resources, Transportation and Health.

The departments say they can save hundreds of thousands of dollars per year if they are allowed to buy fewer newspaper ads, but moving the ads to government web sites would deal yet another financial blow to Hawaii’s newspapers, said Star-Advertiser President and Publisher Dennis Francis.

Hawaii State Capitol building.
State lawmakers are considering a measure that would allow the state and counties to cut costs by scaling back on the legal advertising they buy from Hawaii newspapers. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

The Star-Advertiser is published by Oahu Publications Inc., and resorted to layoffs in recent years as other types of advertising revenue declined and the pandemic shut down much of Hawaii’s economy. The company also imposed employee furloughs in 2020.

Oahu Publications also publishes the daily Hawaii Tribune-Herald and West Hawaii Today on the Big Island and The Garden Island on Kauai, and Francis said the neighbor island papers rely far more on advertising than the Star-Advertiser.

The loss of government advertising “certainly wouldn’t help,” he said.

But the state Department of Land and Natural Resources said in written testimony that the bill will make the public notification process “simpler, timelier and more effective.”

The health department acknowledged in its testimony that many residents and communities still rely on printed newspapers, but said public notices “of substance or great public interest” such as hearings for new state rules, public meetings or contested case hearings are governed by other specific laws.

For those issues, state law would still require newspaper and internet posting even if the bill passes, according to the health department. But the proposed new law would allow the department to cut costs by phasing out advertising that deals with more technical, obscure material.

“Examples of annual cost savings this measure will provide include $100,000 for National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits, $100,000 for waste water variance postings, $5,000 for underground injection control permits, and $30,000 for clean air permits,” according to the health department.

Sandy Ma, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, raised concerns that allowing government agencies to publish public notices on official websites instead of in a newspaper would “increase the divide in government services and accessibility between those with broadband access and those without.”

She suggested that only “routine and non-critical public notices” be posted on official websites instead of in a newspaper, and said agencies that plan to shift notices to websites be required to routinely publish announcements of that plan in physical publications for at least a year before they actually place notices exclusively online.

Francis pointed out that the Star-Advertiser website already publishes government legal ads online, and said the four Hawaii newspapers have 28 million page views per month.

“Suggesting that there would be some obscure government web site that would have more eyeballs than our print product of newspapers and what we have on our digital web site” is wrong, Francis said. “If our circulation was a thousand, that would probably be substantially more than a government web site for a legal ad is ever going to get.”

SB 2111 was approved in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, and now goes to the full Senate for further consideration.

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