Legislation Stalls in Bid to Shield Economic Development Meetings; Bill Would Exempt Incentives from State Open-Record Laws

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Byline: BRANDON LARRABEE

ATLANTA -- A measure that would temporarily shield economic development negotiations from public view is all but dead and likely won't be passed in the upcoming legislative session that begins in January, key lawmakers said last week.

The statements, by the sponsor of the legislation and the highest-ranking Republican in the Senate, all but spell final defeat for House Bill 218, a proposal that was caught in the crossfire of a surprisingly fierce battle over property rights and open-records laws that erupted in the 2005 session.

"Unless we lose a major company because of confidentiality, I doubt that you would see it come up again," said Rep. Ron Stephens, the Savannah Republican who sponsored the bill.

HB 218 would exempt from the state's open-records laws ongoing negotiations about incentives offered companies to locate in Georgia until the deal is complete. It easily passed the House this year, but got bogged down in the Senate after some Republican members, particularly those in fast-growing areas outside Atlanta, reportedly became concerned about the bill.

Sponsors yanked the measure during a floor debate even though no one opposed to the bill had yet gotten up to speak.

At the time, government secrecy had taken on new importance in a session where several bills seemed to be focused on property rights and public access. A Senate bill meant to encourage public-private partnerships became ensnared in a controversy over eminent domain; Republican leaders killed the proposal.

Other bills focused on secrecy included a measure to shield the records of donors to public colleges and universities and a proposal to cut off some information about state employees from public view.

Afterward, supporters said they would bring the proposal back to the Senate to vote on it again at a later date during last year's session. Then supporters vowed to revive the measure in 2006.

Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, said the bill was done in because lawmakers were unable to broker a deal between newspaper publishers opposed to the measure and one of the proposal's key backers, the Department of Economic Development.

"If there's no agreement, the bill's going to rest quietly in the bosom of the Senate," he said.

Stephens said the measure got in trouble after some news media outlets painted the bill as an effort to shroud economic-development projects in excessive secrecy. …