NASHVILLE (AP) – 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.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey told reporters that he doesn't see the bill being returned to a floor vote without a provision to keep ownership information open to the public.
"Some will argue that maybe ownership shouldn't be divulged, that they don't want their names divulged," said Ramsey, R-Blountville. "Well, then don't ask for a grant. It's pretty simple."
Haslam's bill is part of his effort to shift the focus of economic development incentives toward cash grants rather than traditional tax credits.
The state Department of Economic and Community Development wants to ask companies for more due diligence materials before committing that money.
"It's important to remember that the state has not done due diligence in the past," said ECD spokesman Clint Brewer. "We are trying to do a better job and be better stewards of the taxpayers' money."
But the administration also says those materials – including the identities of business owners – must be kept under wraps for fear of scaring off businesses concerned that their proprietary information could be made public.
Brewer said the department's research shows no other state requires the disclosure of business owners receiving economic incentives. He said the move would put Tennessee at a competitive disadvantage, especially with small and mid-sized companies that are privately held.
"Doing this in the state of Tennessee is going to cost Tennessee jobs," he said.
The bill hit its first roadblock last week. A Senate vote was delayed after Democratic Sen. Roy Herron of Dresden in a rousing floor speech questioned whether the measure could give rise to cronyism.
An amendment filed on the Legislature's website on Wednesday afternoon removed any specific reference to ownership.
"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 capitol.tn.gov
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