A necessary component of economic development is a certain degree of closed-doors negotiating and deal making among public, quasi-public and private entities. That's why there are reasonable exceptions carved out of sunshine laws to address those concerns.
Just where the limits of that "certain degree" should be set, and what constitutes a "reasonable" exception to open government law is a trickier matter.
State Rep. Matt Dollar, R-East Cobb, thinks the pendulum has swung too far toward the closed-door part of the equation. He has introduced something he calls the Development Authority Transparency and Accountability Act, which would require quarterly reports to cities, counties and school boards -- i.e., local taxing authorities -- on development projects. Because such projects might involve tax abatements, local officials need to be prepared to make budgeting adjustments if their tax revenues are affected.
"I've tried to work with the business community to create a bill that protects economic development, but restores the public confidence," Dollar told the Marietta Daily Journal. "Confidence has been shaken and it needs to be restored, and that's really all this bill does."
This isn't merely hypothetical. The Development Authority of Cobb County recently offered about $3.5 million in tax abatements for a Riverwalk project, and although the offer was ultimately withdrawn, the Cobb County Board of Education challenged its legality, claiming it infringed on the board's constitutional taxing authority.
The Cobb Chamber of Commerce opposes Dollar's legislation. Chamber Chairman Ben Mathis noted that if it were not for incentive deals, "you wouldn't have businesses like Caterpillar you wouldn't have Kia." He also alluded to the $672 million deal to move the Atlanta Braves out of Atlanta: "If there had been a breach of that confidentiality," Mathis said, "they never would have come here."
(So the Braves-Cobb County backroom deal, which will involve big chunks of public money for big chunks of private profit, is an argument AGAINST the transparency bill? Fascinating ...)
Georgia's courtship of Kia was public knowledge long before the deal was signed, as was Alabama's courtship of Mercedes-Benz a couple of decades earlier, or any of a score of similar development efforts. The mere fact of such recruitment is not the same as disclosing every detail of the negotiations.
Many will remember political efforts of legislatures past to exclude not just financial negotiations, but also eminent domain issues from open government law. (Anybody who wonders what's at the bottom of that proverbial Slippery Slope should Google "Kelo v. City of New London.")
We're nowhere near New London, at least as far as we can tell. But Dollar's House colleague Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, made what sounds like the salient point: "As with all challenging issues, there is a balance to be struck, and my sense is that Dollar's legislation seeks to find that balance."