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Our Views: Secrecy bill a terrible idea for Georgia

     What if a major developer wanted to build a large factory next to where you live? Or a commercial center? Or some other project that would dramatically affect local traffic or the environment in your neighborhood?
     And what if all of that could be done in total secrecy with meetings behind closed doors between the developer and your city or county public officials? And what if those officials could also give away your tax money as inducements to that business, again in secret?
     That is exactly what would happen if a proposed piece of legislation makes its way through the Georgia General Assembly.
     SB159 would allow all local governments to shut all meetings and records related to any project they decided to label “economic development project.”
     Not only could such projects to be done in total secrecy, the legislation would allow local governments to give tax abatements to developers and to commit to building roads, water and other infrastructure with tax money to accommodate development projects, again in secrecy.
     What are the specific problems in this bill?
      The secrecy bill uses the phrase of “economic development project,” but does not define what that is. Many things done by local governments could fall under that banner; and if this bill should become law, anything controversial that a local government doesn’t want to talk about in public will suddenly be labeled “economic development” and the doors to the public closed.
      The legislation specifically gives the power to local governments to define what “economic development project” means. Just imagine how local city and county governments will abuse that. The secrecy legislation would allow government to not only meet in secret to discuss development projects, but it also shuts down public access to all public records related to such projects. If this bill were to pass, a lot of public records would suddenly be labeled “economic development” and kept from the public.
     Not only would those records be closed, the proposed secrecy legislation gives the developer, not the local government, control of when those records would be made available. Local government s could only release public documents about the project after the developer says so. Terrible!
     The law as written would allow local governments to vote and enter into deals with developers without any prior public notice. A local government could give away millions in tax money to a developer without any public oversight or input.
      All of these things are anti-citizen. Governments should seek to provide more transparency, not less.
     For many years, the Georgia Department of Industry and Trade has wanted this legislation. They claim that through open government, other states often find out what incentives Georgia offers major industries.
      A few years ago, they tried to push through similar legislation. After a massive political fight, the bill died.
     Frankly, the claims made by industry and trade about the need f or secrecy are doubtful. What really happens with big industry deals is that a third-party development representative shops a deal around to different states, playing one against another to see how much they can sweeten the pot. Often, the industry knows where it wants to locate from the start, but uses that process to jack up the goodies a state will give it.
      That old legislation is now back in the form of SB159 and is being called a “jobs” bill in an effort to make the public believe it’s needed to bring jobs to Georgia in the middle of an economic downturn. So this isn’t a new bill; it’s an old one being pushed under a different marketing plan designed to play on the fears of Georgia voters (next year is an election year.)
     Nobody really knows just how far this secrecy bill would extend. It might make even make routine rezonings secret since governments could label a rezoning for “economic development.” Or water lines could be run after secret decisions made under the guise of “economic development.”
      If an industry wants to locate in a community using its own money, it can do so in all the secrecy it wants. Nobody’s stopping them.
      But when a potential industry comes with its hands out wanting tax abatements and millions of dollars in roads or water and sewer, then that’s another thing. It’s tax money they’re asking for and taxpayers have a fundamental right to know about it before local officials give it away.
      This proposed legislation is a solution looking for a problem — a problem that doesn’t exist and is being manufactured for political reasons.
     The bill as written is anti-taxpayer and shouldn’t become law.

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