Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Executive Director Deborah Fisher Discusses Its Mission

Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Executive Director Deborah Fisher Discusses Its Mission

 

Live from Music Row Wednesday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – host Leahy welcomed the executive director for the Tennesse Coalition for Open Government, Deborah Fisher in studio to discuss her background the mission of the organization.

Leahy: We are delighted to have in studio our new friend, who we should have met a long time ago. Deb Fisher, the executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. Just before we get started. You’re from Paducah, Kentucky?

Fisher: I grew up there. Yes.

Leahy: Paducah. Went to college where?

Fisher: Baylor.

Leahy: A Baylor Bear. What a fabulous school that is. They’ve done very well. And now you spent your career in local journalism, right.

Fisher: That’s correct.

Leahy: So you were in Tyler, Texas.

Fisher: Tyler and Beaumont, and then for several years and Corpus Christi as the editor of that newspaper there and then moved to The Tennesseean as the business editor and then eventually became the senior editor for news there. I oversaw the news part of the operation, the investigative team. A lot of the reporters.

Leahy: You know what you’re doing?

Fisher: I’ve been around.

Leahy: You hired a good friend of ours.

Fisher: I did. Clint Brewer, right.

Leahy: So, you know, quality. Obviously, Clint is an all-star panelist here. A frequent guest on The Tennessee Star Report. In 2003, you set up this Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.

It’s a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit, small but mighty. And tell us what the objective of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government is. Where can people learn about it on the web?

Fisher: So we do have a website. It’s TCOG, tcog.info. And we’ve had that website up for quite a while. Our mission is to preserve and promote open government. We really focus on access to public records.

We focus a lot on open meetings. That’s been a big issue for us in the past year. We track legislation that would impact those things. We also track courts and decisions that impact access to that.

Leahy: Now ideologically, would you say you are center-left, center-right, or nonpartisan? Where would you describe your center for Open Government?

Fisher: Ideologically, we’re nonpartisan. We stay in our lane. We are very interested in public records. I run a helpline and I get calls from people with all kinds of different ideological backgrounds and interests in public records.

But our belief is that people need access to public records to know what their government is doing to be able to make informed decisions about who they elect and what they tell their representatives.

Leahy: Do you focus mainly on state and local documents or on federal documents?

Fisher: No. We focus entirely on the state. Obviously, we get questions about federal documents. TVA operates in our area, and all the federal agencies operate in our areas and they intersect.

But our focus really is on Tennessee law and access to state and local governments, because that’s an area that’s not really covered by a lot of people.

Leahy: Tell me about it. It is not. It’s very much ignored.

Leahy: In the 18 years since you set this up, would you say Tennessee state government has become more, less, or the same in terms of transparency?

Fisher: Well, let me clarify for a second. I didn’t set it up in 2003. I became executive director later in 2013.

Leahy: So it was running for 10 years?

Fisher: But people ask that all the time. I think probably the biggest difference is that I think we have more problems with certain types of records. Certainly, you have more people and spokespeople in government putting out narratives and our thoughts are that’s great. They give out information, PIOs.

Leahy: PIO?

Fisher: Public information officers, but also leaders,

Leahy: This is a job at every state agency department that has a PIO.

Fisher: You mentioned at the top of the hour that there was a correction of a statement, and I don’t know anything about that story. But what I do know is that public officials can say things, but what we always and what I always tell reporters is you need to check it out.

You need to have a document state of mind, because the public records really document what happened, which sometimes can be different than what people say. And so that’s really why we focus on access to those. And sometimes that’s why those things are hidden.

Leahy: Now, let’s get to this bill. Two bills passed yesterday in the special session of the Tennessee General Assembly. One set up this governing board for the Memphis regional mega site that appears to be not all that transparent, at least from what I read.

And then another bill appropriated $884 million for use by Ford. Elements of the $500 million incentive and its clawback provisions also appear to be very transparent.

Do I have that right? What can you tell us about these two bills that were passed to incentivize Ford to come to West Tennessee?

Fisher: The governor said that the legislative hearings offered some kind of visibility into the deal. And that is true. There was more information that lawmakers learned about the deal, but the documents, the proposed agreement with Ford is still confidential.

So we don’t know the details about the clawback. And we know that there are clawback provisions, but that’s the idea. In terms of setting up the authority right there in the legislation were some major exemptions to the public records law.

The one that we were most concerned about was the one that allows the new CEO of the mega-site authority to keep any record confidential that he or she, I suppose, considers sensitive for five years.

And we’re concerned about that discretionary authority of really one person and who has to get approval from the AG. But basically, one person making that decision.

Leahy: I just learned about that today talking to Scott Cepicky. That part is very troublesome. We’ll get to the money in a bit and the clawback and the lack of the details and the confidentiality.

Actually, most things about this deal seem to be directly confrontational to the mission of your open government coalition.

Fisher: We really don’t take a position on economic development and whether the deal itself is good for West Tennessee, and it’s been described as a game-changer, and it may well be. I mean, we’re not taking it.

Leahy: You’re not focused on that. You’re talking about transparency.

Fisher: Right.

Leahy: But I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but it sounds like if you were to grade this on transparency, A being just what you want. B being kind of there. C is not so good. D being major problems. I don’t think you’d give this an A.

Fisher: I wouldn’t give it an A. We’re always concerned when an organization is set up that has these major exemptions to the public records law, because you may not know the impact now, but down the road, when you’re trying to get information, you’re trying to get accountability about what actually happened there’s an automatic wall there to get that information.

Leahy: It sounds to me that this automatic law won’t apply to this commission that’s running it.

Fisher: Well, I mean, some laws will. The exemptions don’t cover everything. There will be access eventually to the agreement. Although, of course, the CEO could decide parts of it should be confidential.

But in general, the governing body will have open meetings. And I know that the legislature was really concerned about the makeup of that governing body, which is why you saw an amendment to that bill to add more oversight with lawmaker appointments.

What I saw in the questioning at the legislature is they were really concerned about who this board reports to the accountability of the board. But the lawmakers weren’t quite ready to make changes to the public records exemptions.

Leahy: Yeah. Sounds like a mistake to me. But when it comes to transparency now, this governing board. Let’s focus on that for the rest of this segment. Eleven board members. Governor Lee, the commissioner of Economic and Community Development, the commissioner of Finance and Administration, and the commissioner for General Services.

So Governor Lee and three members of his administration, then the governor will appoint two members. The speaker will appoint two, the lieutenant governor, the speaker of the Senate will appoint two.

And then the speaker and the lieutenant governor will jointly appoint someone else. That’s eleven people. Now they will hire the CEO, is that right?

Fisher: Right. They’ll hire the CEO, and they’ll be in charge of kind of executing the contract, building out the site. The state owns the site, so they’ll have their hands on a lot of things.

Leahy: Does it show how they will go about selecting that CEO?

Fisher: No, not in the legislation. That’s not contemplated in the legislation. They would hire them just like any other company.

Leahy: So any board, they can pick whoever they want in a normal majority vote. Hmmm. This is all very interesting to me Deb Fisher.

Listen to the full second hour here:

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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 a.m. to the Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.
Photo “Deborah Fisher” by Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Executive Director Deborah Fisher Talks Lack of Transparency and the Uncollected Clawbacks

Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Executive Director Deborah Fisher Talks Lack of Transparency and the Uncollected Clawbacks

 

Live from Music Row Thursday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – host Leahy welcomed Deborah Fisher, the executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government to the studio to describe reports lacking transparency where clawbacks have not been redeemed after large corporations shut down.

Leahy: I am joined in studio by our friend Deb Fisher, who heads the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. You were going to tell us about the results of all of these funds spent in secret agreements by the Economic Development Administration here to induce a large corporation to come to Tennessee.

Supposedly, if they don’t hit their employment objectives. There are “clawbacks” where they’re supposed to give us back the money. How’s that working out according to this report, Deb?

Fisher: This is the first report, and it was acquired by lawmakers to be presented to the fiscal committee. And I’ll give you just one example from it.

Service Master Global Holdings have received grants I found online on the ECD website of about $5.5 million, $385,000. repaid to each to ECD.

Leahy: Whoa, whoa, whoa. They got $5.5 million in grants with clawback provisions? Is that it?

Fisher: Yeah. The report is sketchy. So I don’t know how much of that was subject to the Clawback provisions, but they received a lot of money from the state.

And that’s the only one listed in this report where they actually did get the clawbacks. There are almost $11 million in clawback owed from previous years that have not been collected.

Leahy: So let’s talk about the not collected bit. And so we don’t have the details of these. These are all secretive deals. To me, you had up a transparency group, why should these deals be secret?

Fisher: Well, they shouldn’t be secret. The public needs to know the performance of ECD. If we’re going to give taxpayer dollars to companies to do things and they don’t do it, we need to know how it works out.

And we’re starting to get just a very small peek at what’s going on. And this has been because some lawmakers have passed laws forcing it, but we still don’t have a full picture. There was a good question yesterday about it.

Leahy: In the Tennessee General Assembly at a committee? House or Senate?

Fisher: House. Bobby Ross. He’s the economic development and asking, how is the performance gone before? And of course, he gives an example of something that’s gone really?

Leahy: One example.

Fisher: But we don’t know the full picture.

Leahy: Why don’t we know that? Why shouldn’t we have accountability, complete detail of comparing every deal where Tennessee taxpayers gave millions of dollars to corporations compared to what they said they would do, what they actually did, how much they owed back in these, and how much they actually paid?

Fisher: I don’t know why we don’t. They don’t provide it. They make it hard to find. They have a lot of discretion to make things confidential. And they have.

A lot of the discretion to make things confidential end up being up to one man, either at the discretion of the ECD Commissioner. In some cases with tax credits. It’s two with a revenue commissioner.

Leahy: Let’s go to that. The clawbacks first, you said $11 million owed in clawback. Who owes the clawback that hasn’t given the money back? Are these companies that went broke?

Fisher: That information is not in the report.

Leahy: You can’t find that out. I would like to find that out, wouldn’t you?

Fisher: Yeah. It’s not clear how many jobs. So the report is pretty sketchy, but it is our first clue. Our first window into the fact that the state is trying to get money owed and hasn’t been able to.

I think these clawback provisions are super important to be put in the contract, but we just have to be realistic about them, and we need to see how they turn out. I mean, it’s not just the magic bullet to the deal.

Leahy: You said something else here about the discretion that some of these folks have, and it’s not just in grants for capital improvements or building buildings or other stuff. It’s for tax credits.

What’s the law on it? And tell us who the Tennessee state officials who have this discretion are? Do they exercise it on tax credits?

Fisher: Right. In statute, there are certain requirements you have to meet to get, say, a job tax credit or a capital investment tax credit, and it’s open to everybody. But if a business doesn’t meet those qualifications, it still can be awarded the credit if the revenue commissioner and the ECD commissioner decide that it’s in the best interest of the state to give that credit to that business.

However, our problem with that is that we don’t have to know who they have decided to give it to. And we think that’s a problem when you basically have two people who can make a decision to give millions and millions of dollars in a tax credit to a company, and that’s not public.

Leahy: And there’s no way to find that out?

Fisher: No, it’s confidential. And it’s confidential by state law.

Leahy: Who voted for that state law?

Fisher: This goes back.

Leahy: How far back does it go?

Fisher: These have been in state law for a while. I don’t know. But they add to it. They subtract from it every year. This year, they added one more of those discretionary tax credits.

Leahy: In the statute.

Fisher: In the statute. Usually, it’s targeted to a company that they want to give incentives to, but they don’t quite meet the qualifications laid out in the state law.

They applied to everybody else, and they want to just bend the rules, basically, for a particular company.

Leahy: Bend the rule. And I’m sure lobbyists have nothing to do with this. That was a little satire there. (Laughs)

Fisher: The state of the credit thinks it’s in the best interest of the state, so they think it’s going to help economic development. So I don’t want to discount that. We just think it should be transparent.

Leahy: Yeah. I think a lot of things should be transparent, and a lot of things that aren’t particularly about this Ford deal. I think a lot more should be transparent. But I want to go back to the two people that can give tax credit at their discretion.

Now, you said it’s the director of economic development, Bob Rolfe. Whoever the revenue commissioner is, it’s a known thing. (Fisher chuckles) But they have a lot of power. A lot of discretion.

Is there any element Deb within the Tennessee General Assembly to limit those discretionary powers that give lots of money to these Fortune 500 companies and sometimes smaller companies?

Fisher: Yes. They wrote the law to allow it, and they could write the law to not allow it, or they could write the law to make it transparent.

Leahy: When you talk to legislators about transparency, what kind of feedback do you get if you say we need more transparency, do they say, oh, yeah. That’s great. Let somebody else do it. How do they respond?

Fisher: Some of them want it. Some of them want it. But they also feel pressured that they need to have jobs brought to their community. And ECD says we can’t deal with companies if we’re going to reveal who we give the money to.

They’re caught between a rock and a hard place because jobs are really important in communities. That’s why we have a whole state agency focused on it. The political angle there is you want the jobs? We got to keep these secrets.

Fisher: To some extent.

Leahy: I think that’s terrible. But that’s the way it is.

Fisher: Not everything is secret, but there are some pretty big holes in this.

Listen to the full second hour here:

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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 a.m. to the Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.
Photo “Tennessee Capitol” by Peggy Anderson. CC BY-SA 4.0.