Secrecy was an open-and-shut case during most of the legislative session, observes Jack McElroy. It began with redistricting, a process that the State Integrity Project rated “F” for lack of transparency.
Four months later, it drew to a close with a secret Sunday confab in a Nashville restaurant to carve up the pork in the budget bill. House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick defended the rendezvous, saying, “There’s been a lot of secrecy for 200 years. I don’t think it’s any worse than it’s always been.”
Sadly, that may be true. As they often have done in the past, lawmakers again added exemptions to the Public Records Act, meaning that more public business can be kept private.
For instance, the University of Tennessee and the Tennessee Board of Regents no longer have to make public all the candidates in a presidential search. Instead, the names of just three finalists must be revealed.
This is supposed to address a long-standing complaint that the best candidates don’t apply for Tennessee jobs because they can’t risk being outed as job-hunters unless they have a really good chance of landing the new gig.
Now Tennessee will be able to steal top administrators away from other states, as we did 10 years ago when UT’s last secret search snagged John Shumaker from the University of Louisville.
Of course, Shumaker resigned a year later in a scandal involving misuse of funds. But I guess even secret searches can’t get it right all the time.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The House has approved a bill to make the names of applicants to lead public colleges and universities confidential.
The chamber voted 79-12 on Thursday in favor of the measure that the bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga, said he introduced on behalf of the University of Tennessee’s board of trustees.
McCormick said the bill would encourage more candidates to apply for the jobs without fear of hurting their current employment. The names of the three finalists would become public at least 15 days before a decision is made about who gets the job, up from seven days in the original version.
The Senate would have to agree to that change before the measure can head for the governor’s consideration.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The sponsor of a proposal to close teacher evaluation records to parents and other members of the public said Thursday that doing so will keep the process honest.
The measure sponsored by Republican Sen. Jim Tracy of Shelbyville was unanimously approved 27-0 in the Senate. The companion bill is scheduled for a vote on the House floor next week.
Tracy said access to the data should be limited to school officials and not available to the general public.
“The principal would be much more honest if he knows it’s not going to go into the public record,” he said after Thursday’s vote. “We’re all about teacher performance, and that’s what evaluations are, to improve a teacher to be the best that they can be.”
Wise sayings from our governor Tuesday as recorded by Tennessee reporters. Secrecy Balance
On keeping secret the ownership of companies receiving cash grants from the state for economic development: “I understand the concern about public money and people wanting to understand who is ultimately benefiting from that. But I think everybody needs to understand, none of our competitors is asking for that information or making that public. So if we do that, we will be at a decided disadvantage,” Haslam told reporters… “You can go talk to people who we’re dealing with and they will say, if that’s the deal, then we’re out. That’s why you have the legislative process, to try to get it right and get the right balance.” Gun BalanceOn “guns in parking lots” legislation: “This is one area where Republicans believe in property rights and they believe in Second Amendment rights,” he said. “Getting the balance right is important.” In Search of Understanding
On changes in lottery scholarship rules to favor home schoolers: “I would need to understand what the reason is for the distinction, which I haven’t heard yet,” Haslam said.
Gov. Bill Haslam offered a broad defense today of his efforts to
shift the state’s business-development incentives from tax credits toward direct
cash grants and to keep secret the owners of companies who win taxpayer funding. More from Richard Locker’s report:
Speaking to the Nashville Chamber of Commerce, Haslam acknowledged the two
bills he’s asked lawmakers to approve have set of a public debate but said he
believes giving businesses cash to move to or expand in Tennessee will cost
taxpayers less and be more “transparent” and more effective over time.
He also said he and lawmakers are trying to find a balance between the
information the state asks of businesses to help officials make decisions about
awarding incentives and the amount of that information disclosed to the public.
His administration is pushing a bill that would allow the state to obtain more
information from businesses applying for public assistance to build or expand,
including financial information, trade secrets and owners of privately held
companies, and keep it confidential even after public money is awarded.
But he said he’s been told that public disclosure of owners of private
companies will cost Tennessee in lost jobs.
“I understand the concern about public money and people wanting to understand
who is ultimately benefitting from that. But I think everybody needs to understand, none of our competitors are asking for that information or making that public. So if we do that, we will be at a decided disadvantage,” Haslam told reporters after the speech.
“You can go talk to people who we’re dealing with and they will say, if that’s the deal, then we’re out. That’s why you have the legislative process, to try to get it right and get the right balance.”
Full story in the Commercial Appeal website HERE.
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.)
A newly unveiled amendment to a controversial bill that keeps permanently secret the names of business owners getting taxpayer cash and other incentives still allows the state to keep the owners’ names secret, reports Richard Locker. The bill, sought by Gov. Bill Haslam’s Economic Commissioner Bill Hagerty, is set for floor votes in both the House and Senate this morning. After the secrecy bill ran into stiff opposition from both Democrats and Republicans, Hagerty’s Department of Economic and Community Development drafted a “compromise” amendment released late Wednesday.
The amendment, which would replace the original bill, allows public release of the name of the company or business receiving the taxpayer money, as well as the amount received and the number of jobs to be created and the location.
But it does not allow release of the names of the owners, state Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, said Wednesday night.
“ECD’s amendment does not require disclosure of ownership. This secret secrecy amendment implicitly does what the original bill did explicitly. It makes ownership of these companies secret,” Herron said.
In a Senate floor debate last week, Herron charged that allowing the state to keep secret the names of privately held businesses that receive state cash grants and various other incentives to locate or expand in Tennessee would deny taxpayers the right to know who’s getting their money and could lead to corruption.
The bill sought by Tennessee economic development officials allowing them to keep secret the names of business owners getting taxpayer-funded development grants, tax credits and other aid appears headed back to the drawing board, reports Richard Locker. The top two legislative leaders (Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell) both said today that the bill is being retooled because taxpayers have a right to know who is getting state economic incentives, including the owners of privately held companies.
…”Commissioner Hagerty, the governor and the people at ECD (Department of Economic and Community Development) want to make the most informed decisions they possibly can, and businesses are not going to divulge this information when they may not even get the grant if it’s not kept out of the public view until the proper time,” Ramsey, R-Blountville, said.
“And so what we decided today (is), I want to make it very clear – and I don’t think it is real clear —that should these people – any business or company – get a grant or get ‘Fast Track’ money or whatever it might be, that the information is divulged at that time. That’s the intent but I don’t think it’s in the bill. We want to make sure that is in the bill. That’s how I want the bill to be and that’s what we’re working on right now.”
Ramsey said he specifically means that owners of grant-receiving companies should be public record.
Harwell, R-Nashville, agreed. “We did discuss that. I think that this bill is still a work in progress…. Private companies just don’t want all that information divulged and that’s understandable. On the other hand, citizens have the right to know how their tax dollars are used and spent and I think we will come up with what will be pleasing to both groups.”—
Read SB2207 at http://capitol.tn.gov.
Closed-door meetings and private discourse are institutionalized in Legislatorland, perhaps fundamentally because of a provision in Article II, Section 22 of our state constitution that says:
“The doors of each House and of committees of the whole shall be kept open, unless when the business shall be such as ought to be kept secret.”
The constitutional call for open government, thus, is basically meaningless. Note, first of all, that this doesn’t cover anything except the full-attendance meetings of each house, the House and the Senate. Meetings as a “committees of the whole,” a procedure rarely used in modern times, means that all members of the House and Senate are present, but that they are functioning as a committee for procedural reasons.
TVA’s board gathered privately the week before it voted last month to approve finishing a long-shelved nuclear reactor despite the federal Sunshine law that calls for openness, reports Anne Paine. Out of nine members, six took part in a tour and lunch together at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Bellefonte nuclear site in Alabama, 110 miles southeast of Nashville. Officials insist there were no deliberations, which would have made the event illegal since a majority of the board was present.
However, the tour has unleashed more doubts among opponents of Bellefonte, who say the public agency continues to shield its inner workings from the public’s view.
“They make decisions in secret and the TVA board just rubber-stamps them,” said Garry Morgan, who lives a few miles from the Bellefonte site and has opposed its completion. It’s not the only time that the public is asked to trust TVA when its board gathers behind closed doors.