Haslam administration slow to share economic incentives for development deal

Why is the Haslam administration so hush-hush on how much in economic incentive dollars it is giving to companies? In a case that Knoxville News Sentinel Editor Jack McElroy uses as an example in his Sunday column, Advanced Munitions International has already received the deed to 269 acres in Blount County for an ammo factory and headquarters.

Governor Bill Haslam and his ECD commissioner, Randy Boyd, attended an event to announce that 605 new jobs would be created. But the Haslam administration wouldn’t reveal what it’s giving Advanced Munitions for those 605 jobs. The economic incentives or grants is likely in the millions. But paperwork not yet signed, check back later.

When the state goes to the trouble to create some hoopla and announces it has scored a big win on job creation, why omit what the state is contributing in taxpayer dollars? Any technical answer to this question becomes pretty hard to swallow.

Government transparency means taking the time and the trouble to be up front with citizens about what they want to know. It’s tone deaf to think the amount is irrelevant and citizens don’t care. Note the different approach taken by the mayors of Knoxville and Knox County.

Here’s a reprint of McElroy’s column: Haslam slow to share what taxpayers bring to development deals

How much are citizens forking out to support the expansion of private businesses?

It seems like a simple question, and it’s one our reporters have been asking frequently as officials have announced recent deals to bring new jobs to the area.

But the answers have been anything but simple.

Take the announcement that Advanced Munitions International will build an ammo factory and move its headquarters to Alcoa. Gov. Bill Haslam and Randy Boyd, commissioner of economic and community development, were on hand to tout the 605 jobs being created. But when asked what the citizenry of Tennessee was contributing to the deal, Boyd said the details were still being finalized, “so, there is not anything I can say.”

Actually, the deal is done. A deed already has transferred 269 acres from the Industrial Development Board of Blount County to AMI. Blount Countians paid $2.3 million for the land back in 1998.

Questioned further, Boyd clarified that it’s only the state’s share of the AMI incentives that still are being worked out.

“We’ve agreed in principle,” he said, “but they are dotting the ‘I’s and crossing the ‘T’s. Then we have to have the State Funding Board approve it. But until that happens, we don’t disclose it.”

So when will that be? John Dunn, spokesman for the state Comptroller, said the State Funding Board is scheduled to meet Nov. 13 and 19 but the AMI incentives aren’t on the agenda.

“Our staff is not aware of this project at this time,” he said.

Boyd’s clarification came after the announcement of another high-profile expansion, the move of the Regal Entertainment’s headquarters into the old Baptist Hospital office building on the South Knoxville waterfront, expected to produce 75 new jobs. For that project, though, the amount of the state’s contribution was announced: $1.5 million.

Why were taxpayers told what they’ve kicked in for Regal — which hasn’t gone before the State Funding Board either — but not for AMI?

It’s an “anomaly,” said Boyd. “In this particular case, the city and others wanted to share that information, but it’s typically not what we prefer to do.”

The operative word is “prefer.” Haslam’s administration prefers to focus these announcements on the jobs being created and the adroitness of the government’s deal-making without mentioning what taxpayers have brought to the table. Other administrations, such as those of mayors Madeline Rogero and Tim Burchett, are more willing to share the details up front.

Eventually the cost to state coffers will become public, but only after the fanfare has faded and attention has turned elsewhere.

Still, that’s better than what the Tennessee Valley Authority does. The federal agency refuses to reveal the subsidies it bestows on private businesses even after deals are done. TVA insists its ability to compete would be compromised if that sensitive info leaked out.

But, oops. Loose-lipped Rogero spilled the beans on TVA’s contribution to the Regal deal, too, letting slip that it added $80,000 in “utility money” to the pool.

We’ll see if the $11-billion-a-year utility can survive the disclosure of that secret to the public.

Jack McElroy is editor of the News Sentinel. He may be reached at 865-342-6300 or at editor@knoxnews.com.

 

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