Senate Delays Economic Development Disclosure Bill

A legislative effort to prevent the public from seeing certain information state government wants to collect from businesses seeking millions in Tennessee taxpayer-financed handouts got bogged down Monday night amid concerns over the bill’s scope.

Lawmakers on the floor of the Tennessee Senate debated for about half an hour whether the Department of Economic and Community Development should require businesses to submit more information — like company ownership, financial statements and cash flow reports.

The sticking point arose over the bill’s assurances that the extra disclosure requirements wouldn’t be disclosed to the public.

“Quite frankly, it seems to me irresponsible,” said Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, adding that the measure creates a “secret cloak” to shroud information that ought not be hidden.

“It’s hard for me to believe that we don’t know, that ECD doesn’t know — and that others who ask questions can’t know right now — who owns these companies when we’re proposing to give tax dollars to them,” Herron said.

The measure’s sponsor agreed Monday to delay the bill while the Haslam administration, which is pushing the legislation, attempts to address Herron’s chief complaint that the measure would keep secret the names of people who own businesses winning grants. “The idea that we’re hiding something that is currently public is misleading,” said Sen. Bo Watson, a Hixson Republican.

The company details, which are not currently collected, would be used for “due diligence” investigations by ECD as part of a process to award up to $70 million in FastTrack development grants outlined in the governor’s 2013 fiscal year budget plan, in addition to other tax incentives and government-funded inducements to private business.

The amount constitutes a dramatic expansion in the taxpayer-funded program for businesses. Since 2006, the state has allotted $38.5 million annually, on average, for the FastTrack program.

The measure has so far earned all yes votes in both House and Senate committees. It is up for a vote in the House Commerce Committee Tuesday and on the Senate floor again Thursday.