By Erik Schelzig,
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A full Senate vote was delayed Thursday on Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to close records used to make economic development grant decisions, as some lawmakers questioned why ownership details should be sealed.
Sen. Bo Watson acknowledged the ownership portion of the proposal has become the “fundamental issue around the bill.” But the Hixson Republican insisted that “all of the members are interested in making sure that the public gets the necessary information that it needs.”
“We are trying to bring more light to the process,” he said.
Haslam’s bill is part of his effort to shift the focus of economic development incentives toward cash grants rather than traditional tax credits. (It was sent back to committee from the Senate floor Thursday for further study.)
The administration wants to ask companies for more due diligence materials before committing that money. But the administration also says those materials must kept under wraps for fear of scaring off businesses concerned that their proprietary information could be made public.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle balked at the original version of the bill because the confidential information would have included the ownership of the companies receiving grants. Sen. Roy Herron, D-Herron, has warned that the measure could give rise to corruption and cronyism in the future.
An amendment filed on the Legislature’s website on Wednesday afternoon removed any specific reference to ownership. But it did not say whether such information would be kept confidential or made public.
Herron said his reading of the revision is that it would leave it up to the Department of Economic and Community Development to decide to keep the ownership information under wraps.
“You might call this the secret secrecy amendment,” Herron said. “Because it’s not immediately obvious what they’re doing, but there’s no question about their keeping the ownership interest secret.”
Open government advocates have argued that state law already provides for closing off proprietary information for a period of five years.
The companion bill was also delayed for a week in the House on Thursday.
Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland and the main House sponsor of the bill, bristled at the criticism of the measure.
“The cloaking or the secrecy question about the bill is a little bit of a misnomer,” Brooks said. “What they’re trying to do is make Tennessee on an even level playing field to bring more jobs.”
Read SB2207 at http://capitol.tn.gov