published Saturday, March 12th, 2011

Mullis’ shameful legislation

TIMES EDITORIAL

Georgia Sen. Jeff Mullis, the Republican from Chickamauga, obviously thinks residents of his district are competent to put him into office but that they and other Georgia voters have no need to monitor the actions of the state’s elected and appointed officials. Why else would he introduce and vigorously encourage passage of a bill that significantly reduces the right of all Georgians to know what actions are being taken in the name of economic development? Mullis can say what he wants, but his bill promotes the interests of the well-heeled at the expense of ordinary citizens.

Mullis, of course, disagrees, saying that passage of the secrecy bill will allow Georgia to compete more effectively in the admittedly cut-throat business of attracting new industry and other development to the state. That’s not true. Georgia continues to compete effectively in that arena. Indeed, Georgia ranks in the Top 5 in bringing new business to a state, according to the well-respected Site Selection magazine. Given that, there’s no need to reduce the state’s welcome openness in such matters.

Georgia’s obvious success in attracting business, however, doesn’t seem to deter Mullis. He’s determined to create an atmosphere in which Georgia’s public entities and private business will be allowed to promote, to negotiate and to consummate deals without public scrutiny. That’s bad law.

Mullis says the need for secrecy is obvious. He says if the state was more secretive in such matters, it would not have lost the Volkswagen plant to Tennessee. He says the legal requirement that Georgia make public its offers of incentives, abatements, land deals, etc. gives other states an advantage. Nonsense. If Georgia didn’t make the information available, it’s likely companies negotiating for a new site would.

Indeed, it’s common practice, economic development experts say, for a company to use one state’s offer as a bargaining chip to promote a better deal from another state. It is done discreetly, of course, but in negotiations for billion-dollar plants, there really is little that is secret.

The only purpose of the Mullis bill is to keep Georgians in the dark. Why else would it say that “information relating to a private person or entity’s economic development project ... shall not be subject to any mandatory public disclosure requirement, and no document or record containing information about such private economic development project shall constitute a matter of public record.” That’s not all.

The legislation also says the secrecy would prevail until the “private person” or government entity “announces to the general public” that a decision has been reached. In other words, the public would have no right to know until those who make and cut deals want it have access to the details. That, of course, often is too late.

There’s no need for such measures. State law already adequately protects trade secrets and provides ample latitude for officials to effectively negotiate without intrusive public scrutiny. Still, there comes a time when Georgians have a right to know what is being done in their name and, more importantly, what those actions may or may not cost them. And they should have access to that information and have the opportunity to make their feelings about the use of public funds to underwrite private business known before — not after — any agreement is signed.

Mullis has gall; you’ve got to hand him that. Similar legislation was proposed but roundly defeated a couple of years ago. Mullis claims there’s no opposition this time — save from the state’s newspapers. He’s wrong. Most Georgians oppose government secrecy and certainly oppose this effort to extend it. Mullis’ bill — a shameful sop to big business — should be defeated before it can do irreparable harm to the state and those who live in it.

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