By Richard Locker
NASHVILLE -- When Gov. Phil Bredesen's budget chief presented his final state budget plan to lawmakers Tuesday, it included a surprise $51 million appropriation request listed simply as "economic development projects."
When a senator asked state Finance Commissioner Dave Goetz for more details, he answered. "Can I come talk to you privately about that?"
Thus Tennesseans watching on the Legislature's website or in the hearing room were left in the dark about a possible appropriation big enough, for example, to offset prior budget cuts and a possible 10 percent tuition hike for students at all the state's community colleges for one year.
Similarly, the state Legislature last year created a complex state-funded venture capital program called "TNInvestco" and endowed it with $120 million in tax credits -- but shrouded most of its operations under a cloud of secrecy. Officials recently chose six private consortiums to dole out the money to startup businesses, with no guarantee of returns on the state's investments.
The TNInvestco law provides taxpayers no means of identifying where the money is going and who is benefiting from it. Officials even have kept secret the "scoring matrixes" they used to select the six firms from a larger pool of applicants. One of the losing applicants has sued the state.
Those are examples of how Tennessee often spends hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars as incentives to lure major economic development projects to the state -- like the Volkswagen auto plant under construction in Chattanooga -- in the name of creating jobs for Tennesseans.
Mostly in agreement
All four candidates for governor say -- in the latest in a series of issue surveys by a coalition of Tennessee newspapers, including the Chattanooga Times Free Press -- that they are for more "transparency" and accountability in state government.
But the candidates -- Democrat Mike McWherter and Republicans Bill Haslam, Ron Ramsey and Zach Wamp -- also say they would maintain some level of secrecy when it comes to the highly competitive process of recruiting business to Tennessee, and keeping existing industries here. They say disclosing details of the incentives packages offered to prospective businesses would put Tennessee at a competitive disadvantage with other states in the race for the same jobs.
However, all four candidates say they would keep state budget hearings open to the public, including live-streaming and archiving them on the state's website, a precedent set by Gov. Phil Bredesen.
All four candidates said they support Tennessee's open meetings and open records laws and carefully would weigh proposals to add new exemptions to the laws -- by the public's interest in openness against possible harm to individuals or businesses of disclosing information.
Dick Williams, chairman of Common Cause of Tennessee, a nonpartisan public-interest group, said Tennessee "has basically good open records and meetings laws, but every year there's a desire to close up something, and we always have to watch that."
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He said that "while there are occasionally legitimate reasons to close certain records, we have to be sure they are not overreaching."
On other issues, the candidates:
* Differ in their views on legislation, killed this year, to require Chamber of Commerce groups and other private organizations receiving public funds to open their meetings and records concerning those funds to the public.
* Differ on a separate bill to require limited liability companies, or LLCs, receiving state contracts to disclose the names of their owners.
* Agree that they would release their schedules of public appearances, and make available upon request their full schedules -- but not appointments or trips involving the recruitment of specific businesses or industries if they believe disclosure would harm those efforts. Lt. Gov. Ramsey is the only candidate in the race who has declined thus far to release his campaign schedule.
* Oppose efforts by state and local government agencies to charge residents for inspecting public documents and records, in addition to the fees they may already charge for making copies of public records.