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House Bill 387 scams taxpayers, destroys public records law

EDITORIAL

The Advocate-Messenger

Here’s a simple concept most people agree with: Taxpayers ought to be able to know how their tax dollars are being spent and why.

You know who doesn’t agree with that idea? Gov. Matt Bevin and the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development. Together with state Rep. Jason Petrie (R-Elkton), they are pushing House Bill 387, which would grant unprecedented power to state officials to keep secret their economic dealings with prospective businesses.

The bill would tear gaping holes in Kentucky’s Open Records Act.

It would eliminate accountability for economic development officials by shutting off access to many economic development records currently defined as public.

It would end the current presumption that all records of public agencies should be public record by default, unless there is a legitimate reason to keep them secret.

And it would for the first time grant a government agency other than the legislature — Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority — the ability to exempt from disclosure any records they wish.

“This is a breathtakingly broad grant of authority to a single agency, and a surprising display of hypocrisy from an administration that prides itself on revoking regulations and limiting regulatory power,” reads a statement from the Kentucky Press Association warning of the bill’s enormous harmful potential. “… When the power to decide which records are exempt resides with in a public agency, the mandates of the (Open Records Act) are merely illusory. The public has a right to know what its public agencies are doing, particularly when it involves the allocation and collection of tax dollars.”

HB 387 is an obvious attempt to end two current legal battles over public economic development records that the state is trying to conceal:

• Kentucky currently owns at least a 20-percent share of Braidy Industries, which has proposed building a $1.68 billion aluminum mill in eastern Kentucky. But even though Kentucky has put $15 million of taxpayer funds into Braidy Industries and awarded the company $4 million in grants, the state has maintained it isn’t required to release public records showing who the investors are. Braidy independently released what it said is a list of its investors in 2017, but the Cabinet for Economic Development has refused to release public records about Braidy’s investors, even going so far as to defy a court order.

• Louisville attempted to attract Amazon Inc.’s second headquarters project with a $140,000 presentation and a reported $2.5 billion in tax incentives, but the bid ultimately failed. Like the CED, Louisville Metro government has refused to give up its public records about the failed proposal, even after a court ordered the records released.

In both of these cases, defenders of government secrecy have tried to argue they must keep the information under wraps or risk losing out on future business deals. It’s nothing but scare tactics.

Kentucky’s governor and economic development officials want to take taxpayers’ money and use it for whatever purposes they wish, alleging they will work miracles and give taxpayers all the jobs in the world. But they want to avoid any accountability by preventing taxpayers from ever knowing what they did.

They are scam artists, but on a disturbing scale: They want to enshrine rules protecting their scam in state law, unraveling government accountability in a truly dangerous way.

HB 387 needs to die a quick, ugly death, and it should never be seen nor heard from again.