Originally created 02/03/05

Georgia tries to detain details



ATLANTA - Negotiations with companies looking to bring business to Georgia would be temporarily walled off from public view under a bill working through the General Assembly.

The measure, sponsored by Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Garden City, sailed through the House Economic Development and Tourism Committee on Wednesday.

Specifically, the measure would prevent citizens from seeing the incentives being offered to companies considering locating in Georgia until a deal is agreed to or until the state walks away from the bargaining table.

That would also keep competitor states from getting their hands on the information.

Economic developers say that kind of privacy is needed to keep neighboring states from having an unfair advantage by getting a look at the Peach State's offers.

"It's always been (the case that) we can't get their playbook," Mr. Stephens said of the other states. "Well, now they can't get ours."

Supporters of the bill say the public's right to know wouldn't be weakened by the measure; it would just be delayed until negotiations have played out.

"We're not trying to hide information at all," said Charlie Gatlin, a deputy director with the Georgia Department of Economic Development, which requested the legislation. "It's simply a matter of timing."

He said all other Southeastern states except West Virginia have similar exemptions from open-records laws.

Rep. Nan Orrock, an Atlanta Democrat who said she abstained from a unanimous voice vote in favor of the bill, was the only committee member to voice reservations about the measure.

"These are public dollars that the agency is making decisions with," she said.

Open-government groups say passing the bill would be a mistake.

"The catch phrase economic development provides cover for government to (negotiate) in secret," said Hollie Manheimber, the executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. "The public, not the officials it elected, loses if this bill passes."

The bill would still have to pass the Rules Committee before it could be adopted by the full House and sent to the Senate.