Secrecy law shields Georgia athletic departments and economic development

Gov. Nathan Deal signed a bill into law Monday that would give state college athletic associations three months to respond to virtually all requests for public records.

Nathan Deal

Gov. Nathan Deal speaking earlier this month when he voted a controversial “religious liberty” bill. On Monday, Deal signed SB 323 into law, a bill dealing with open records requests. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

 

The unprecedented exemption for college athletic departments is likely to get most of the attention, as the new law would extend from three days to 90 days the amount of time athletic departments at public colleges such as the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech have to respond to records requests.

But Senate Bill 323 started as a measure sought by Deal to help shield economic development negotiations until the ink was dry on major jobs deals.

Though that part of the law will probably not capture the same headlines as the part that deals with college athletic associations, it’s a big change, too.

First Amendment and open government activists were already sounding alarms about the bill when matters involving college athletic associations were added in the dead of night in the next-to-last legislative day of the 2016 session.

The bill would allow any state agency to conceal documents about economic development projects involving business expansions of $25 million in investment or 50 jobs. After a deal is signed or negotiations are terminated, the records would become public.

The law currently gives this exemption solely to the state Department of Economic Development. Critics of the bill say it could potentially allow any arm of the state government to conceal activities that it claims will create jobs.

Open government advocates say it is overly broad and should be narrowed to explicitly state that it only covers projects under the direction of that department.

In an e-mail to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Deal spokeswoman Jen Talaber Ryan said “there are other agencies at the table with GDEcD during the recruiting process and this legislation reflects that.”

The measure alters a 2012 compromise between Deal’s office, the media and other open government groups, that strengthened some parts of the state’s sunshine law but also provided some secrecy for the state’s recruiters. That change provided limited protections to allow the state’s Department of Economic Development to negotiate with companies without those talks becoming public.

The aim of that legislation was to keep other states from learning what Georgia offered companies and to provide companies protection about sensitive corporate secrets.

Competitors, however, have found a way around that 2012 compromise by searching for records from other state agencies, such as public colleges that also interact with top recruits, state Sen. Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, a bill sponsor, said last month.

Other states have similar protections to keep their negotiations secret, he said.

“We need to be on the same playing field as they are,” Dugan said.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation wrote in a letter to Dugan last month that they feared the wording of the latest bill was overly broad and might be used by any arm of the state government to conceal activities that it claims will create jobs, such as government contracts or road building.

“We believe the bill as drafted opens the door to abuse of the exception to open records provided for major state economic development projects,” Hollie Manheimer, the executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, wrote in a letter dated March. 1.

UGA

March 15, 2016 Athens, GA: Georgia’s new head football coach Kirby Smart during the first day of spring practice Tuesday March 15, 2016. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

Then came a late night push to add athletic departments at the state’s colleges.

As the AJC previously reported:

Lawmakers approved the measure after a visit by new Georgia football coach Kirby Smart, who said he was asked about it during his March sojourn to the statehouse. It soon was tacked on to an unrelated measure and was swiftly passed after midnight on the second-to-last day of the legislative session.

UPDATE: A Deal spokeswoman told the AJC’s Greg Bluestein  the governor supported the new rules because “it simply levels the playing field with other states that also have strong athletic programs like Georgia.”

When the combined bill passed both chambers of the Georgia Legislature, Manheimer said “this amendment — at the eleventh hour of the legislative session — is an affront to the purpose of Georgia’s open records act, and all citizens should be disturbed.”

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