published Friday, February 17th, 2012

No secret corporate dole, Tennessee legislative leaders say

NASHVILLE — Top legislative leaders want to rewrite Gov. Bill Haslam’s legislation that would keep the public from seeing the names of owners of companies receiving taxpayer-funded economic incentives.

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, and House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, said citizens should know the ownership interests behind companies getting state Fast Track development grants, tax incentives and tax credits.

A bill sought by Haslam, a fellow Republican, and Economic Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty seeks more detailed information from companies receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money. It includes “information on business processes, organizational structure and ownership, financial statements” and similar data.

But the information, including ownership, would be kept secret even after the decision is made to grant them public assistance.

Critics say that while they understand the need to keep proprietary information off- limits, the names of owners should be disclosed when they get taxpayer-funded benefits.

CORRUPTION WORRY

The bill faltered Monday night on the Senate floor when Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, warned it could lead to corruption with family members of state officials having undisclosed interests in companies receiving public assistance.

The bill was postponed yet again in the Senate on Thursday morning. Ramsey said the delay was to give the administration time to change the bill and allow owners to become part of the public record after deals are finalized.

“Businesses are not going to divulge this information when they may not even get the grant if it’s not kept out of the public view until the proper time,” Ramsey said.

“And so what we decided today, I want to make it very clear — and I don’t think it is real clear — that should these people, any business or company, get a grant or get Fast Track money or whatever it might be, that the information is divulged at that time.”

Harwell later agreed and called the bill “a work in progress.

“Private companies just don’t want all that information divulged and that’s understandable,” she added. “On the other hand, citizens have the right to know how their tax dollars are used and spent and I think we will come up with what will be pleasing to both groups.”

MORE SPENDING EYED

The bill is coupled with some $70 million in additional funding for state Fast Track grants for infrastructure and job training.

In the last years of the previous Bredesen administration, the state granted more than $500 million in various incentives to Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Wacker Chemical Co. near Cleveland and Amazon.com, which built two distribution facilities in Chattanooga and Bradley County.

Other beneficiaries include Electrolux in Memphis and Hemlock Semiconductor in Clarksville.

Hagerty said having detailed information about other companies will lead to wiser decisions by the state when spending public dollars.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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