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Newspapers Back Online Notice Bill

Legal notices like public auctions and meeting announcements would have to be published online, as well as in newspapers, under a bill that is headed to both state House and Senate calendar committees to be scheduled for floor votes.

Newspapers that are eligible to print legal notices would be required to post them on their website and a site maintained by the Tennessee Press Association, starting April 1, 2014, under the amended versions of House Bill 1001 and Senate Bill 461. The notices would be published on the Internet for the same period of time notices are published in the newspaper and at no extra cost to the person or business.

The bill is backed by the association, sponsor Sen. Ken Yager said. The Senate bill passed in the State and Local Government Committee he chairs, while the House State Government Committee approved the bill earlier Tuesday morning.

“The reason we’re doing this is we’ve been faced in recent years with multiple attempts to remove public notices from newspapers and put them on government websites exclusively,” the TPA’s Frank Gibson said.

“Fewer than a third of households in Tennessee ever see a government website, but over two-thirds either read the newspaper or the newspaper’s website,” said Gibson, the association’s public policy director. “That combination vehicle is the way to reach the widest audience.”

Ken Yager

Yager, a Republican, told the committee that the bill will not only “put in practice a system that will ensure the widest circulation of legal notices, but most important, legal notices will continue to be published by those institutions that are independent of the government.”

The Harriman representative said he thinks the bill combines the best of both worlds.

“It keeps public notice in places where most people can find them, which promote government transparency and public trust.”

According to Gibson, many, if not most, newspapers currently post public notices on both their own websites and TPA’s statewide aggregate website for no additional charge.

“TPA has 122 newspapers. Only two do not have websites, and they are in the process of building websites now,” Gibson said, adding they will be fully operational months before the bill takes effect.

Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at amhipps@capitolnewstn.com, on Twitter @CapitolNews_TN or at 615-442-8667.

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ECD Drafting ‘Clawback’ Clauses for Subsidy Agreements

A state agency that doles out millions in taxpayer dollars to businesses promising to make work for struggling Tennesseans is formulating procedures to take money back from companies that don’t deliver the good jobs.

The Department of Economic and Community Development is working out details of a “clawback” provision it plans to insert into FastTrack grant agreements, according to the agency’s communications director, Clint Brewer.

“It’s not the issue that businesses haven’t done what they said they’re going to do. The issue is we want to be following the best practices we can,” said Brewer, assistant ECD commissioner. “To do that, we have to be the best stewards of public money we can be.”

Most ECD contracts currently don’t include a clawback provision, said Brewer. The lack of such recourse was at one time a particularly frustrating state of affairs to Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a Republican. Ramsey criticized the administration of Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen for making deals like $101 million in handouts to Electrolux for hinting at the creation of 1,250 jobs, even though the formal arrangement explicitly disallowed state officials from trying to recoup taxpayer resources if the company failed to produce.

Brewer said the department is now “on the brink of beginning to use that language in a new standard FastTrack contract,” but wouldn’t say specifically when the agency would start.

“It has taken us the better part of the last 18 months – obviously with a lot of other things going on – to work through the process of determining what legal precedent and black letter law would allow,” he said.

Making businesses promise to give taxpayers back some of their money should not only be required, but be publicly disclosed, said Dick Williams, with Tennesseans for Fair Taxation, a pro-income tax coalition of progressive activists and public-sector union groups.

“If something doesn’t work out, then the taxpayers ought to get back some, if not all, of the money they gave them,” Williams said. “Certainly, we shouldn’t assume they’ll all be successful.”

This year, lawmakers agreed to more than double the FastTrack program to $80 million. Since 2006, the state has allotted an average of $38.5 million in tax dollars annually to the FastTrack program.

The program offers businesses grants or loans for expenses like job training, infrastructure improvement, equipment, and temporary office space related to relocation or expansion. The taxpayer money is funneled through local governments or their economic development branches to issue to companies.

Changing how grant contracts are written is one of a handful of changes economic development officials are talking about making this year.

Last week, the department loaded agency statistics and records online in an attempt to increase accessibility to government documents, with plans to add a searchable database and other features by the time legislators are back on Capitol Hill next year.

The new “Open ECD” website lists business and incentives information for state-issued FastTrack grants, tax incentives, TNInvestco projects and community block grants — and how many jobs the money has reportedly created.

None of the information is new, says Brewer, but it’s now accessible without having to file open records requests to look at them, “so you can see on the back end how those jobs have stood up.”

Open government advocates generally applaud the effort to make information easier for the public to get to, but warn that the website shouldn’t be a substitute for agencies filling specific open records requests.

“That’s commendable as long as that does not become a substitute for normal, routine public records requests,” said Frank Gibson, director of public policy for the Tennessee Press Association.

“My big concern about them is at some point (when) you make a public records request, they’ll say it’s on their website. But is all the information you’re asking about on their website?” he said.

Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Executive Director Kent Flanagan calls the site “a great starting point,” but says he’s waiting to see how good the department is at updating people who sign up for alerts when ECD documents are posted.

“It’s not about what happened three months ago. It’s about what happened this morning,” he said.

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ECD ‘Due Diligence Bill’ Advances in Senate

Gov. Bill Haslam, who wants to expand taxpayer-funded grants to business, is also suggesting that extra information collected to pick the winners be kept hidden from public view.

“Due diligence” documents such as corporate financial statements, budgets, cash flow reports and ownership information would be reviewed by politicians and agency staff but would not be open under a measure, Senate Bill 2207, that advanced out of a Senate committee Tuesday on an 8-0 vote with little debate.

Haslam, a Republican, wants to pump $70 million into the Fast Track grant program which is used to entice companies like Amazon to locate in Tennessee in addition to tax incentives and tax credits. Under SB2207, the state would collect more information from applying businesses but share none of it with taxpayers.

“You have to recognize that as a private company, that they have a need to keep information private,” Sen. Bo Watson, a Hixson Republican and the bill’s co-prime sponsor, told TNReport.

Both Haslam and his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, have faced criticism for keeping lucrative state deals with corporations shrouded in secrecy. In some cases, it’s hard for the public to even know the final tally of incentives provided because of the privacy of tax information, though in the case of Volkswagen, the bill reached hundreds of millions of dollars for expenses like buying land and training employees to work for the car manufacturer.

The measure comes from a long list of bills Haslam wants to see passed this year, including one that would give the Department of Economic and Community Development more flexibility to offer Fast Track grants for high-impact relocations and expansions.

“Using hard dollars from the FastTrack program is more transparent than the tax incentive process, which is completely confidential under law,” Clint Brewer, an ECD spokesman, said via email. “The due diligence bill does not hide anything ECD is doing, it only protects private company finances.”

The “due diligence” business details, which lawmakers want to add as an exemption from open records laws, are additional bits of information Watson says will help the agency do its “homework.”

Under that legislation, the State Funding Board would be able to review insider details for Fast Track grants but the group — made up of the top five officers in the executive branch — will also be required to keep that information confidential.

ECD now decides which companies to invest in without that “due diligence” level of insider information. It now reviews and keeps proprietary information and any trade secrets close to the vest.

One government transparency advocate contends the documents Haslam is looking to keep out of the public eye are already protected under state law. But push comes to shove, the most important information that needs to be public are the final details of the arrangement: Who is getting how much money?

“Our concern was that language dealing with ownership could be construed to say that they didn’t have to say who they were giving grants to,” said Frank Gibson, director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, who is not fighting the bill because the company name would still be public information on the final ECD contract, even if the owner’s name isn’t.

“Eventually people are able to find out who they are. Volkswagen LLC is still Volkswagen.”