ECD Secrecy Bill Reconsidered

A Haslam administration-backed bill that would prevent government from disclosing the names of company owners or key corporate officials seeking state taxpayer-funded business incentives has stalled in the Tennessee Legislature.

Senate Bill 2207 is meant to allow the state to mine and scrutinize the financial details of businesses applying for tax-subsidized grants. It also contains confidentiality provisions meant to assure companies their proprietary information won’t end up making headlines.

But both Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell told reporters this week they favor rewriting the measure with the intent of addressing transparency concerns many lawmakers and open-government advocates have voiced.

“Private companies just do not want all that information divulged, and that’s understandable,” said Harwell, R-Nashville. “On the other hand, citizens have a right to know how their tax dollars are being used and spent, and I think we’re going to come up with what will be pleasing to both of those.”

The issue of primary contention is whether to reveal company ownership. The measure, pitched by Gov. Bill Haslam, now calls for businesses to submit information like budgets, cash flow reports and a list of owners to the Department of Economic and Community Development. The department says such information would help vet companies wanting state dollars for investing in Tennessee.

The state doesn’t ask for those details now because they would be made public, putting the Volunteer State at a competitive disadvantage with states that obtain such information and keep it closed to the public, administration officials say.

“I think there are some folks like that who are like, ‘We’ll, we’re trying to decide are we going to invest in Tennessee or Indiana or Florida or Texas or wherever,’ and they might be a smaller, privately owned company,” Haslam said in defending the bill Wednesday. “As long as they don’t intersect in anybody in the public sphere, I’m not certain why we need to know that.”

Ramsey and other critics say they’re OK that most financial details be private, but that ownership should be made public eventually.

“Should these people, any business or company, get a grant, get FastTrack money or whatever it might be, the information is divulged at that time. That’s the intent,” Ramsey told reporters Thursday.

The measure is up in the Senate Thursday. Since the state currently doesn’t collect that information, the state is “no worse off” if the bill doesn’t pass, he added.