I did something last week I’ve never done before: I testified at a state Senate committee meeting. My appearance was via Zoom from my Twisp office, as I couldn’t make it to Olympia, where the Legislature is now meeting “live” after a couple of online sessions under COVID restrictions. Still, it was an instructive experience.
The legislative proposal I testified for — one of the first to have a hearing as the Legislature convened last week — is Senate Bill 5199/House Bill 1206. The hearing was before the Senate Committee on Business, Financial Services, Gaming & Trade.
The legislation was jointly introduced by Sen. Mark Mullett, D-Issaquah, and Rep. Gerry Pollett, D-Seattle, with the assistance and support of Attorney General Bob Ferguson. It would exempt Washington newspapers and eligible online news outlets from the state’s business and occupation (B&O) tax.
A little history is in order. Thanks to earlier legislation, newspapers currently pay a reduced B&O rate, but that tax break expires in July 2024. SB5199/HB1206 would fully eliminate the B&O tax for newspaper publishers and printers, as well as for online news organizations that meet specific criteria.
Favoritism? Hardly. As a Seattle Times story noted last year, “Washington provides similar tax breaks to all manner of manufacturers, and they routinely sail through the Legislature.”
As a reporter, I’ve always been the attentive observer at such events. Not having done that citizen testimony thing in the past, I was naturally nervous. I prepared notes, but realized as the hearing started, with comments limited to 2 minutes, that I would have to do some on-the-spot condensing and consolidating of what I wanted to say.
I wasn’t the only one testifying. Several of my colleagues in the newspaper business were also online to support the bill, as were representatives of the League of Women Voters and a woman who lamented that her local paper had become a wispy ghost of itself. No one testified against the proposed legislation.
Ferguson also testified in support of the bill, as did Rowland Thompson, the longtime lobbyist for Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association (the weeklies). Rowland has shepherded a lot of legislation through the complicated lawmaking process during his tenure, working both sides of the aisle, the executive branch and bureaucracy with impressive dexterity and a profound sense of history.
When my time came — sooner than expected — I saw that my laptop’s camera was pointed in such a way that only the top of my head was visible, not my best look. I adjusted as I started to extemporize from my prepared remarks. Multitasking in the digital age.
I’m not sure exactly what I said, and am not inclined to see if the hearing was archived somewhere. I did my best to make the main point: that easing the B&O tax for newspapers is of course beneficial for the industry, but the more important long-term objective is to help keep the community press — and hence, democracy — alive.
While the B&O tax is significant for larger publications, for an organization as small as the Methow Valley News it is not a make-or-break expense (at least, not yet). For me, tax break is about the principle of the thing, which is to put some small brake on the decline of local newspapers in the communities that need and deserve them.
What I told the committee (I think) is that the News and other papers like it represent the “smallest of the small,” which are sometimes overlooked but have suffered egregiously in the newspaper business’s decline. We face the same challenges the larger publications do — ad revenue, circulation, hiring — on a smaller scale.
The ultimate beneficiaries of the legislation, I testified, are the readers — who are the legislators’ constituencies. I noted that around the country, there are hundreds of “news deserts,” communities that are not served by a local newspaper. Studies have shown that where newspapers disappear, public engagement drops off dramatically.
In a press release, Ferguson said the legislation is part of his commitment to promote and defend democracy by supporting local newspapers and “combat polarization, misinformation and extremism.”
“We don’t have to accept the loss of local news as an inevitability,” Ferguson said. “We have to keep these outlets afloat. Local journalists play an essential role to inform the public, hold government accountable and make our communities stronger.”
I could not have said it better myself, and fortunately I didn’t have to try.
I doubt my two minutes of sub-prime time will tilt action in either direction, but it was important to make my voice heard. That right is what we are trying to protect.