Bill would weaken Open Records Act

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By Randy Patrick

State Rep. Chad McCoy of Bardstown sees merit in a proposal to exempt from the Open Records Act information about incentives the state Economic Development Cabinet offers companies to locate or expand, but he isn’t saying how he’ll vote on the bill until he sees the final version.

The Republican whose district consists of Nelson County said recently that governments can’t disclose while they’re negotiating, or they’ll “always lose the bid.”

“If we had to show our cards while we’re doing it, we would lose to Tennessee or Indiana every time,” he said.

He added, however, that there should be “full disclosure immediately after.”

The Kentucky Open Records Act already includes some exceptions to protect companies that are offered incentives from unfair competition, but House Bill 387, sponsored by Rep. Jason Petrie, R-Elkton, would create new categories of exemptions.

For example, the bill would prohibit disclosure of information including companies’ business plans, the identities of shareholders, incentives that are offered but not successful and, broadly, “information declared confidential” by the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority.

Jack Mazurak, a spokesman for the Economic Development Cabinet, which helped write the bill, told the Lexington Herald-Leader: “We’re asking for just the amount of change that we need to be able to do our jobs correctly while still maintaining the necessary level of transparency.”

But Amye Bensenhaver, a former assistant attorney general, said the current exemptions in the state open records law have been adequate to address legitimate concerns.

“It seems to me that what they’re trying to do now, with this bill and with others like it, is to wipe the slate clean on the Open Records Act so they can close the door entirely on the public’s right to know,” Bensenhaver said.

Petrie’s bill was assigned to the House Committee on Economic Development and Workforce Investment, but the version approved by the committee late Tuesday is radically different from the original bill. The substitute version by Rep. Russell Webber, R-Shepherdsville, would also make sweeping changes to the Open Records Act that have nothing to do with economic development incentives:

• It would eliminate appeals to the courts of refusal of requests for legislative branch records. The Legislative Research Commission would have the final say.

• It would limit the ability of those who are not Kentucky residents to use the open records law to get access to records.

• It would prevent parties in lawsuits from using the open records law to gather documents, requiring them instead to use the courts’ discovery process.

“I haven’t committed to anything. … I’ve got to wait and see what comes out of committee.” McCoy said last weekend when he was interviewed about the bill before the substitute.

He has not yet responded to a request for comment on the amended version.

Nelson County has gotten many new industries in recent years under the rules as they exist now, including Thai Summit, Takigawa and three new distilleries: Bardstown Bourbon Company, Lux Row and Preservation, with a fourth, Kentucky Owl, on the way.

Kim Huston, president of the Nelson County Economic Development Agency, has read press coverage of the bill, but has not been involved in any conversations about it, and doesn’t have a position on it.

“Economic Development incentives are always a hot button during each legislative session. The competition with other states is stiff and Kentucky needs every competitive advantage in recruiting companies,” she said.

Editor’s note: Some information and comments for this story are from the Courier Journal and Lexington Herald-Leader through the Kentucky Press News Service.