Governor touts grant transparency

Governor touts grant transparency

NASHVILLE (AP) — Gov. Bill Haslam says his plan to spur economic development by providing more grants to companies that invest in the state will be a transparent process, yet he’s also filed a bill that wouldn’t allow the public to see the information used to make the grant decisions.
“Fast track grants are more transparent than tax credits and don’t commit state dollars on a long-term, multiyear basis like tax credits do,” Haslam said in announcing his legislative agenda this week.
The governor’s comments do not conflict with the administration’s bill that aims to close off access to “due diligence” material that would be gathered by the Department of Economic and Community Development, said agency spokesman Clint Brewer.
The main details of fast track grants will remain subject to the state’s open records laws, compared to information about tax credits that are largely confidential, Brewer said.
“Those (grant) dollars are up for public review,” he said. “Tax credits are not.”
The department plans to require more details about companies’ finances before it makes grant decisions. Releasing that information could discourage companies seeking to invest in Tennessee for fear of seeing their proprietary information made public, Brewer said.
“It’s a balancing act,” Brewer said. “We don’t want to put ourselves at a competitive disadvantage against other states.”
Ben Cunningham, a tea party activist and spokesman for Tennessee Tax Revolt, disagreed. “Our politicians should not consider themselves the gatekeepers for the private economy,” Cunningham said.
“It is a slap in the face to the whole idea of open government.” 
The state already provides grants for jobs training and infrastructure improvements. The new grants would be available to help companies pay for items including relocation or expansion expenses, equipment, building repairs and temporary office space.
“Cash grants are often more attractive to companies than tax credits,” Haslam said. “So this is another asset to keep Tennessee competitive.”
Haslam said the new grants would be reserved for “special circumstances.” He would not tell reporters how much additional money he planned to include for the grants in his budget.
The infrastructure and jobs training grants must be approved by the State Funding Board. The panel last month approved $20 million for seven projects around Tennessee, including for $7 million for new Amazon.com distribution centers and $1.6 million for the General Motors plant in Spring Hill.
The State Funding Board is scheduled to take up another $13.5 million in grants this week, including $4 million in for the Wacker plant in Cleveland, $2.9 million the Nissan plants in Smyrna and Decherd and $1.25 million for the Blues City Brewery in Memphis.
Cunningham, the anti-tax advocate, said Haslam is missing an opportunity to shed more light on the way the state decides how to give incentives to businesses.
“He has a unique opportunity to say we are going to conduct this process out in the open, and stop holding these secret negotiations with large corporations over handing out these huge wads of money,” he said.
Online:
The bill to change the grant program is HB2344: http://www.capitol.tn.gov/Bills/107/Bill/HB2344.pdf
The bill to close the records is HB2345: http://www.capitol.tn.gov/Bills/107/Bill/HB2345.pdf 

Published in The Messenger 1.12.12

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