If the Georgia General Assembly were a movie, it might be called “Nightmare on Washington Street.”
Remember those slasher films of years ago? Monsters terrorize the streets and villages. The villain always gets killed at the end — but not the first time. You think the demon is gone for good — but, no — he always comes back one more time to threaten innocent townspeople.
That’s an apt description for SB 159 by Sen. Jeff Mullis (R-Chickamauga). It’s an unholy resurrection of one of Georgia’s most notorious attempts to hijack good government. Known earlier as House Bill 218, Mullis’ proposal will allow public officials, economic developers and private business to meet in secret to help “boost our state’s economy and promote job growth.”
A worthy goal, no doubt. Jobs are needed. Sen. Mullis appears to hope the economic downturn and accompanying hunger for jobs will blind citizens to the ugly downside of this bill. Here’s the part Mullis — an economic developer himself — doesn’t talk about. If his bill becomes law, it will also make other things easier for public officials to do in secret. Some examples:
• Land near your home could go from being a serene pasture to a smoke-belching, gear-grinding industrial complex — and you won’t know about the change being approved until it’s too late to raise objection.
• Local officials could agree to increase your taxes to pay for incentives given to bring in that industry— and you won’t know about the tax increase plan until it’s too late to ask questions.
• Local officials could site a hog farm, a landfill, any number of undesirable developments near your home, or in your community— and it will all be approved in secret and not revealed to you, the taxpayer, until the deal is signed.
• Local officials could offer a new industry tax abatements— or no taxes at all — and make your taxes go up in the process. You won’t know until the deal is signed and official.
• You’ve just poured your life savings into a new home. Officials could route a new highway close by to serve business, sending trucks and more traffic by your driveway. And, you guessed it— you won’t know until the deal is already finalized.
That’s just for starters.
Economic development is routinely done with some level of secrecy. Understandably so. Business and industry are naturally reluctant to publicly disclose plans to move, expand or trade secrets.
That is not the issue. There are already ways to keep that information private.
When public officials start offering tax abatements or financial incentives you are paying for, however, that’s when privacy should end and the public allowed to know details. After all, it is your money being spent.
Many of Georgia’s poor, rural counties are preyed upon by developers looking for communities hungry for payrolls, willing to give up relatively cheap land for the promise of jobs. Too often those jobs are in industries that pollute, involve dirty or hazardous products, or have other unattractive aspects.
Communities certainly have a right to pursue such industries if they choose, but residents need to be aware and not have those businesses creep in under a veil of secrecy.
Common sense tells if a new industry or business is stopped because the public learns the details— odds are, that proposal needed to be stopped.
Local representatives and senators are going to be under tremendous pressure to sacrifice your right to know what developments may be occurring near you. Money and influence of big business speak loudly in the General Assembly.
This legislation was stopped only by public outcry just a few years ago. Eager developers keep circling the Capitol, looking for an opening to slip this past an inattentive public and into law.
If you don’t want nasty surprises showing up next door to your home one day, call your legislator. Tell them we’ve seen SB 159 before and the plot isn’t any better this time around.
Secrecy in government is bad public policy and SB 159 rates a “thumbs down.”
• Robert M. Williams Jr. publishes weekly newspapers in Blackshear, Alma, Folkston, McRae and Forsyth. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.