Insulting the taxpayers who support it, Gov. Matt Bevin’s Economic Development Cabinet is asking the legislature to keep secret an astounding array of information about the state’s deals with private businesses.
The tax breaks (incentives, as they’re politely called) doled out in economic development deals are worth billions of dollars. Lawmakers have a duty to provide oversight of these decisions, to analyze whether the jobs created justify the tax revenue that’s lost. But lawmakers also could be kept in the dark if House Bill 387 becomes law.
Remember, earlier administrations put together successful economic packages — Toyota, UPS, Ford expansions, just to name a few biggies — without shutting out the public or axing open government laws.
Kentucky’s Open Records Act already provides ample exemptions to protect trade secrets and to keep deals confidential in their uncertain early stages.
The Bevin administration, nonetheless, seeks sweeping new powers to withhold any records and also to absurdly stretch the definition of “trade secret” to conceal information that should be public.
“The proposed bill would shield virtually every record pertaining to economic development from public disclosure, and permit the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority to use its administrative powers to declare records exempt from public disclosure,” explains an analysis by the Kentucky Press Association.
“These changes would diminish the power of the Open Records Act to promote a transparent and accountable government, and would increase the likelihood of self-dealing, mismanagement, and short-sightedness by all public agencies engaged in economic development.”
While the push for secrecy is consistent with Bevin’s imperial style, two court cases seem to be an impetus for this terrible legislation: Judges have ordered the disclosure of public records regarding Louisville’s unsuccessful courting of the Amazon headquarters and the state’s investments in the hoped-for development of an aluminum mill near Ashland.
The Bevin administration has invested $15 million plus a $4 million grant in Braidy Industries’ aluminum manufacturing plans, making Kentucky taxpayers a shareholder in the company, a highly unusual arrangement. The state is refusing to disclose the other shareholders on grounds the information is a trade secret. That’s contrary to any normal definition of trade secret as an invention or information that has proprietary value because it’s secret.
The giveaways governments offered Amazon are evidence of why more — not less light — should be shed on the competition for jobs.
As a candidate in 2015, Bevin called for “a significant reduction” in tax breaks that cost Kentucky $10 billion a year; economic development incentives are part of that number. In his Blueprint for a Better Kentucky, Bevin said, “There is little to no oversight or review of these favors being doled out at taxpayer expense.”
He was right then. And, if his administration has its way now, there will be even less oversight and review of favors doled out at taxpayer expense.