ERIK SCHELZIG, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - A high-ranking state Republican official kept tabs on negotiations by the previous Democratic administration that gave online retailer Amazon.com a sales tax exclusion in Tennessee.
Comptroller Justin Wilson confirmed to The Associated Press on Monday that he was kept informed of the details of the deal struck by former Gov. Phil Bredesen to bring jobs to the state. Wilson wouldn't say how many meetings he attended or divulge the specifics of his role.
Some Republican lawmakers criticized a lack of GOP input, while others questioned whether they should honor the agreement Bredesen reached shortly before leaving office. Sales taxes account for nearly two out of every three dollars directed to the state's general fund.
Efforts to scuttle the exemption were opposed most vocally by lawmakers who cited the more than 1,200 jobs Amazon expects to create in Chattanooga, Cleveland and Lebanon.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said earlier this year the state needs to uphold the development deals of the previous administration, but bristled at the details of incentive packages. It was easy for Bredesen to strike deals when "a few weeks later you were going to be out of office ... Now he left it to us to figure out how we're going to pay for this," Ramsey said in March.
Ramsey spokesman Adam Kleinheider said Monday that Wilson did not keep the Senate speaker in the loop during the Amazon negotiations because of taxpayer confidentiality concerns.
"Comptroller Wilson had no obligation to inform the legislature and acted exactly as he should have," Kleinheider said in an e-mail.
Bredesen, who left office in January, declined through a spokesman to comment on why he involved Wilson. Republican Gov. Bill Haslam said in May that it would have been "disingenuous" for him to support legislative efforts to kill the special tax exemption. The Republican sponsors of those bills ultimately delayed consideration on them until next year.
"Whatever happened, I'm glad that Amazon is hiring people in Chattanooga," said House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick.
The Chattanooga Republican said he had been unaware of Wilson's role, but said it made sense given his previous expertise as a tax attorney.
"I don't know what was going through Gov. Bredesen's mind," McCormick said. "But Justin Wilson, whether he's comptroller or not, would be someone I'd want helping me on a deal.
"He's worked on some pretty big deals and some pretty complicated business transactions over the years."
Wilson, a former deputy to then-Gov. Don Sundquist, was first elected to the position of comptroller by the Republican Legislature in 2009. The comptroller's responsibilities include auditing state and local government entities, and participating in "the general financial and administrative management and oversight of state government," according to his office's website.
McCormick said the second-guessing of economic development deals hurts the state's business prospects.
"I don't think it's really the Legislature's function to negotiate the details of economic development deals," he said. "Our job is to help uphold those deals and to provide a good business environment for those deals to be made."