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State close to luring large business, Deal says

Governor, others want change in law to keep business deals under wraps

POSTED: January 13, 2012 12:03 a.m.

Gov. Nathan Deal says Georgia is very close to a deal that could bring the "largest new business opportunity for the state" since Korean automaker Kia decided to build its Optima brand in West Point.

The Kia assembly line began production in 2009, bringing some 3,000 new jobs.

Deal, speaking to a group of newspaper editors and publishers from around the state Thursday morning, said another big deal may be coming soon.

"We are currently in the final stages of negotiating what will hopefully be the largest new business opportunity for the state of Georgia since Kia," the governor said.

Neither Deal nor the Commissioner of Georgia's Department of Economic Development would offer more details about the prospective company.

"There's a lot of large deals in the pipeline right now," said Chris Cummiskey, the agency's commissioner.

The governor made the statement at a newspaper conference in Atlanta, making known his opinion on the state's current open records law, which he said could jeopardize the project.

Laws that keep government communication open to the public, Deal said, are allowing competitors to see what tax incentives the state is offering to prospective industries.

He said surrounding states don't allow public access to negotiations for economic development projects.

Deal expressed support for an exemption to the law that would keep secret incentives the state offers to attract businesses, such as tax breaks, until after negotiations are complete.

A bill that promised to do just that last year never made it out of the Senate but is likely to resurface this year.

Deal spokesman Brian Robinson later said the state's current laws leave economic development officials to "operate in fear" of the competition.

"When your competitor knows what cards you're holding and you don't know what cards they're holding, it's a one-sided game," Deal said. "And these are very, very competitive situations we get in."

Economic development officials at the state and local level have said an exemption to Georgia's open records laws for development projects would make the state more competitive in luring industry.

Advocates for open government, however, have been leery of the change.

Cummiskey did not comment specifically on the governor's remarks Thursday, saying he wasn't sure of their specifics. He said some companies won't even consider locating in Georgia for fear their plans might be made public before they are ready. He did not cite specific instances.

"We can never quantify how many companies don't look at us in the first place," Cummiskey said.

But he echoed the Deal's sentiments that the state's open records law posed a threat to economic development.

"Most states have exemptions (from their open records laws) for economic development until after a deal is complete," Cummiskey said.

Members of the Georgia Press Association previously opposed proposals for exemptions to the open records law, association president Len Robbins said.

As Georgia senators considered Senate Bill 159 last year, which proposed to block the state's discussions with prospective industry from public access, newspapers in the state editorialized against the change, Robbins said.

The issue for newspapers, Robbins said, was that taxpayers needed to know what kinds of tax breaks the government might offer before striking a deal.

The bill never made it out of the Senate last year, but one of the senators who sponsored it in 2011, Flowery Branch Republican Butch Miller, said it is "very likely" the bill will surface again this year.

Deal supports keeping the information private until the state knows "that it has already sealed the deal," and making it public "as quickly as possible after that."

Robbins said he understands the push for job creation in Georgia. But he hopes lawmakers will reconfigure the bill, creating some sort of "notification period" that informs taxpayers before a deal is final.

That way, Robbins said, "if there was an issue, people in the community could address it."

Deal, too, said he is committed to keeping government records public, and hopes to find a compromise.

"We don't want to keep you from knowing what you think is essential for you to know," Deal said. "But by the same token, we don't want that public knowledge to be what causes us to lose opportunities that will go to other states that do not engage in the same disclosure that we do. We think it's simply a matter of fairness."



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