With little fanfare, a new anti-transparency measure just became law.
Last week, Gov. Nathan Deal signed a new anti-transparency measure into law. SB 323 exempts all economic development projects — from any state agency — from public disclosure, until after a contract has been signed.
The House and Senate approved the measure late in the evening on the second-to-last day of session. It received near universal support in the House, with a vote of 166-2, while garnering some detractors in the Senate, for a non-party line vote of 31-22.
A last minute amendment was successfully added, giving university athletic department’s 90 days to respond to requests for information.
The Georgia First Amendment Foundation sent a letter to the governor asking him to veto the legislation.
“We believe the bill as drafted opens the door to abuse of exception to open records provided for major state economic development projects…. As passed by the General Assembly, this language leaves open the door to broad misuse of this section in contexts not contemplated by the General Assembly,” the letter states.
Concerns about the broad implications for this anti-transparency measure are no exaggeration. Every tax break promised to a corporation for locating their business in Georgia will happen behind closed doors, as this measure applies to any economic development project by any agency.
Recently, Gov. Deal celebrated a concrete manufacturer, EdenCrete Industries Inc., locating its global manufacturing headquarters to Augusta. The press release included an announcement that the Department of Transportation has committed to purchasing concrete from them.
“The Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) has already approved the use of EdenCrete™ in its 24-hour highway concrete repair mix and plans a further field trial of EdenCrete™ for use in new concrete highway construction.”
These are precisely the sorts of agreements that should be subject to public scrutiny, and not negotiated behind closed doors.
This legislation reverses progress made four years ago to expand Georgia’s sunshine laws, the laws that govern public meetings and open records rules.
In 2012, a narrow exemption was included in the overhaul for the Department of Economic Development. The Department–which serves to recruit new businesses to Georgia–needed discretion to be able to woo companies, without competing states being able to take a peek at what the Department was doing or promising to win new business.
The AJC reported on the 2012 deal:
The governor and other state officials worried the bill would have allowed other states to use Georgia’s sunshine laws to learn what Georgia was offering to companies looking to locate in the state. It would have, he said, allowed them “to find out in advance exactly what we were doing and then going out and trumping our offer.”
The Center for Public Integrity gave Georgia an overall grade of “D-” last year in their in 2015 State Integrity Investigation; Georgia received an “F” for public access to information.
It may sound outrageou, but perhaps less disclosure, less access and less transparency are not the way to run a state.