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.
Although the main sponsor of the legislation has said he would make changes, as of Wednesday morning, that had not been done. A committee meeting in the legislature on the bill was supposed to be held Wednesday afternoon.
Local state Sen. Frank Ginn originally signed on the bill as a co-sponsor, but late last week said he’d changed his mind and would not support the legislation in its current form.
Frankly, the claims made by industry and trade folks about the need for 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. (Whether such corporate welfare is good or not is another discussion.)
And why the need for secrecy? Jackson County has been very successful in industrial development without having to resort to hidden deals. And officials here have been open in their call for transparency of such transactions — if an industry balks at such openness, it’s probably not the kind of business the community would want anyway.
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.
(For the full version of this column, see the March 9 issue of The Jackson Herald.)
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on his blog at publisherbuffington.wordpress.com.