Originally created 11/27/05

Bill to keep negotiations private likely won't pass

ATLANTA - A measure that would temporarily shield economic development negotiations from public view is all but dead and likely won't be passed in the legislative session that begins in January, key lawmakers say.

The statements, by the sponsor of the legislation and the highest-ranking Republican in the Senate, all but spell final defeat for House Bill 218, a proposal that was caught in the crossfire of a surprisingly fierce battle over property rights and open-records laws that erupted during the 2005 session.

"Unless we lose a major company because of confidentiality, I doubt that you would see it come up again," said Rep. Ron Stephens, the Savannah Republican who sponsored the bill.

Under the measure, ongoing negotiations about incentives offered to lure companies to Georgia would be exempt from the state's open-records laws until the deal is complete. The bill easily passed the House earlier this year but got bogged down in the Senate after some Republican members, particularly those in fast-growing areas outside Atlanta, reportedly became concerned about it.

Sponsors yanked the measure during a floor debate even though no one who opposed to the bill had gotten up to speak.

At the time, government secrecy had taken on new importance in a session where several bills seemed to be focused on property rights and public access. A Senate bill meant to encourage public-private partnerships became ensnared in a controversy over eminent domain; Republican leaders killed it.

Other secrecy bills included a measure to shield the records of donors to public colleges and universities and a proposal to cut off some information about state employees from public view.

Opponents of shielding negotiations say taxpayers should have the right to know how their money is being spent even as talks are ongoing.

Even with the possibility of the bill's demise, open-government groups aren't letting their guard down. Hollie Manheimer, the head of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said she had heard conflicting reports on whether the bill would re-emerge.

"We're prepared to combat that as necessary," she said.

Reach Brandon Larrabee at (404) 681-1701 or brandon.larrabee@morris.com.


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