Haslam Sees Benefits to Cash for Companies, Keeping Details Quiet

Gov. Bill Haslam listed two possible beneficiaries of his legislation to authorize more payments of state cash for business expansions that create jobs during a visit to the Chattanooga Times Free Press. And he said some information involved in such dealings needs to be kept secret.
The prospects: Audi, a division of Volkswagen, and Nissan, which is eyeing expansion of its Decherd, Tenn., engine plant.
If the governor’s proposed legislative package of 55 bills passes, the German and Japanese automakers could receive both state grants and protection for business secrets revealed during negotiations.
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said the privacy allowances won’t make deals less transparent and won’t apply to existing records.
“It’s to increase [companies’] confidence in sharing information with us,” he said.
But critics complain the legislation undermines public confidence in the process.
“Our politicians should not consider themselves the gatekeepers for the private economy,” said Ben Cunningham, a tea party activist and spokesman for Tennessee Tax Revolt. “It’s a slap in the face to the whole idea of open government.”
Haslam said cash grants under the state’s Fast Track business development program must go through the State Funding Board and must be budgeted in an open process.
“If there are things that are part of the companies’ proprietary business operations, that shouldn’t be open for review because we do think that opening those records would have a chilling effect on companies that want to apply with us,” Haslam said.
…The broader thrust of the plan, Haslam said, is a push to give negotiators increased flexibility in what activities they can fund.
State grants previously could only go toward infrastructure and training. If lawmakers embrace his plan, state money could also pay for some site work and relocation expenses.
But those extra qualifiers only apply under special circumstances, primarily if an employer is looking to create a large number of jobs in a small community, he said.
“This is targeted at unemployment in rural areas,” Haslam said.
The proposal will de-emphasize tax credits and boost the state’s ability to give grants on the front end, which he said have proven more popular among businesses looking to build on Tennessee’s ample acreage.

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