Government secrecy: Hide-don’t-seek bill a dangerous game

AJC Editorial Board’s Opinion: A push to drape a confidentiality cloak over economic development deals negotiated with private interests must be exposed to public outcry — again.

Government can only be truly accountable if the citizenry regularly learns what our elected or appointed servants are up to. That’s a concept celebrated during national Sunshine Week, which begins today.  Friday, March 11, 2011

The opposite of that ideal is a secretive government — one whose unseen hands have liberty to pursue actions that may not be in the best interests of the governed.

Georgia Senate Bill 159 would make this undesirable outcome much easier to achieve by tossing a larger cloak of confidentiality over the economic development deals governments often negotiate with private interests. This legislation should die in its tracks before it moves any further around the Gold Dome.

The bill, whose sponsors include Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, decrees that “information relating to a private person or entity’s economic development project … shall not be subject to any mandatory public disclosure requirement, and no document or record containing information about such private economic development project shall constitute a matter of public record.”

This outrageous blanket grant of anonymity would not be lifted until such time that said “private person” or entity “announces to the general public” that a decision good, bad or indifferent to Georgian interests has been reached.

If passed, this legislation could enable bad or costly ideas to be foisted onto the public after it is too late for their outcry to affect outcomes. So much for government of the people, by the people and for the people.

SB 159 smacks of a “we know what’s best for you” Big Brotherism that should be anathema to the will of a free people. We believe Georgians deserve the chance to apply Ronald Reagan’s oft-quoted adage to “trust, but verify.” That can only happen if taxpayers are clued in on economic development plans as early as prudence allows and while there’s still time to effect changes, if warranted.

That’s less likely to happen if SB 159 drops a concealing cover on economic development in this state.

Georgians should demand better of their lawmakers, and they should do so quickly, given that the bill was voted out of the Senate Economic Development Committee last week.

It will be said that bringing jobs here is the sole motivation behind SB 159. Georgia, the bill’s supporters say, is hamstrung by current requirements that economic incentives be publicized upon request. Competing states can, and have, pried open what should be confidential playbooks by filing open records requests demanding details of incentive packages, some say. “Often, our trade secrets are in the window for everybody to see,” Mullis said during a committee hearing last week.

That reasonably open window hasn’t kept Georgia from luring companies large and small to this pro-business state, even amid the greatest economic decline since the Great Depression. Site Selection magazine this month ranked Georgia No. 5 among states when it comes to drawing businesses.

That said, this editorial board recognizes well that state and local governments aren’t exempt from the forces of a competitive marketplace. That means the practice of using public money to fuel private development will likely be around for a long time as smart businesspeople shrewdly shop for the best possible deal.

That’s the real world. We believe that when taxpayer dollars are used in this way, the details should be made public in a timely manner. It’s the people’s money, after all.

Georgia’s prowess in drawing commerce and jobs shows that existing allowances for secrecy in negotiations seem adequate for safeguarding legitimate business interests.

Even company executives are often quick to say that incentives were not the deciding factor in relocation decisions. To believe that on its face may be naive, but it is beyond argument that many other factors, such as tax rates, quality of life and the availability of a trained work force weigh heavily in these calculations.

Lastly, once companies are lured to Georgia, they become taxpayers with a vested interest in how their money is being spent to lure the next business to town. SB 159 would hinder efforts to learn about deals that could affect their bottom line.

Sen. Mullis told the committee last week that only a pesky news media has so far opposed the bill. That wasn’t the case in 2005 when public heat nixed similar legislation.

Taking Mullis at his word this time around, we believe Georgians should again make their voices heard and help bury this bad idea for a second, and final, time.

Andre Jackson, 
for the Editorial Board

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One Response to Government secrecy: Hide-don’t-seek bill a dangerous game

  1. robert says:

    Wikipedia says Fascism seeks to organize a nation according to corporatist perspectives, values, and systems including the political system and the economy. Senate Bill 159 had might as well be called the “corporate kick back bill” because that’s what its proposing in real time.

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