Opinion: Legislative bill would shield state tourism records from public, but ‘sensitive’ declaration is too vague

Staff File Photo By Robin Rudd / Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee speaks to people gathered at a put-in on the Ocoee River on June 4, 2021, to celebrate the impact of tourism.
Staff File Photo By Robin Rudd / Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee speaks to people gathered at a put-in on the Ocoee River on June 4, 2021, to celebrate the impact of tourism.

A proposed bill in the General Assembly would allow the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development to keep certain records hidden for 10 years at the discretion of the attorney general and tourism commissioner.

The idea is that such records vaguely would be considered "sensitive," thereby endangering the competitiveness of business deals if not protected from public view.

Generally, we don't believe the public is better served if records are hidden. We also feel the term "sensitive" is unnecessarily broad and that the determination of what is "sensitive" information would be made by a coalition of no more than two unelected officials.

Is tourism vital for Tennessee? You bet.

The economic impact of travel in the state in 2022, released by Tourism Economics in September 2023, shows that 141 million visitors generated $29 billion in direct spending in 2022, up 19% from 2021.

Visitor spending generated $2.9 billion in state and local tax revenue during 2022, and it was calculated that without tourism each Tennessee household would have to pay an additional $1,100 in taxes annually.

The state, further, ranks 11th in the country for travel spending, its highest rank ever.

The question, when it comes down to what is being requested in the bill, is would tourism spending increase — and by how much — if certain information was protected, or unable to be accessed by the media or by the public?

Well, no one is saying.

It would be informative, for instance, if it were revealed that the state missed out on this deal or that one because the entities involved would have had to reveal financial details about themselves or what they were willing to do or accept to do business.

None of that has been mentioned.

What the sponsor of the House bill, state Rep. William Lamberth, R-Portland, has said is that what Gov. Bill Lee and the tourist development department are seeking is similar to a law passed in 1988 for the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, which allows it to keep its records secret for five years.

"They wanted some of the same options that ECD has when they are pursuing a large tourist opportunity for the state," Lamberth stated. "Some of those preliminary discussions are not public when it comes to ECD projects, and they wanted the same thing."

The local tourist agency, then called the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau, ran into trouble in 2017 when it declared its spending records were confidential and that a county commissioner who received such documents was prohibited by law from sharing such information with the public.

"Such secrecy is misguided," Deborah Fisher, director of Tennessee Coalition for Open Government (TCOG), wrote at the time, "and an insult to citizens who expect and deserve accountability with the spending of tax dollars."

She cited a 2002 Tennessee Supreme Court ruling, which said that "... the public's fundamental right to scrutinize the performance of public services and the expenditure of public funds should not be subverted by government or by private entity merely because public duties have been delegated to an independent contractor."

A state audit that followed the tourist bureau's reluctance to release its records was critical of its lack of reporting, among other things.

Amanda Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Department of Tourist Development, said passing the new bill would give the state an advantage.

"Tourist Development needs the ability to conduct due diligence without risking the disclosure of sensitive information that could harm our stakeholders' competitive edge or business deals," she said.

Fisher, though, said the measure has too many unknowns.

Keeping information from the public, she said in a post on the TCOG website, also could keep it from lawmakers and legislative committees and could shield from the light of day any deals benefiting private business and why certain ventures were funded and certain others were not.

(What tourism dollars went into building the controversial new Tennessee Titans stadium and what the department might spend to lure a Super Bowl to Nashville are items that might be subject to the proposed law.)

"Because of the breadth of the proposed exemption and how the ECD exemption has been deployed to block public records requests on controversial issues," Fisher wrote, "it is not unreasonable to project that many of the tourism department's choices on how to spend its money and particularly any of its results (or lack of results) would quickly become off limits to the public."

Besides, she told the Nashville Tennessean, if they just want to keep the development of contracts confidential, "then all they would have to do is write that into the exemption."

Indeed, that's much better in the long run than a vague sweep of records. If the bill moves forward at all, we hope it will be with that specificity and a general mandate of transparency.

Upcoming Events