AP NEWS

Bill changing Kentucky’s open records law advances

February 27, 2019

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — When the city of Louisville refused to disclose how much they offered Amazon to lure its headquarters there, the local newspaper sued and won in an initial court decision.

On Tuesday, Republican lawmakers in the state legislature advanced a bill that would keep that from happening again.

A legislative committee approved House bill 387 by a 11-5 vote, with three lawmakers voting “pass.” It would exempt government officials from disclosing what kind of tax breaks and other incentives they offered companies to move there if the proposal is rejected.

It would also exempt companies from having to disclose their shareholders or other financial information when accepting state tax breaks. And it would limit open records requests only to people and entities based in Kentucky, according to Republican Rep. Jason Petrie, who sponsored the bill.

“I think It’s always been a prerequisite that companies who have interest in pursuing locating in the state have full assurance that the information they are being asked to disclose will remain confidential,” Kentucky Economic Development Cabinet Secretary Terry Gill said. “I think that’s a reasonable expectation and one we think is paramount to our ability to compete on an international basis for these projects.”

The bill is aimed at two recent court rulings. The first is a ruling from a state judge that the city of Louisville must disclose what it offered to lure Amazon to put its second headquarters there. City officials have appealed that ruling.

The second is a ruling from the Kentucky Court of Appeals that Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration was wrong to withhold the names of shareholders in Braidy Industries, a private company that has a $15 million investment from taxpayers. The company voluntarily disclosed its shareholders in 2017.

Both rulings were prompted by requests from the Courier Journal in Louisville.

Michael Abate, a lawyer for the Kentucky Press Association, said the bill would prevent those records from being released in the future.

“We own it. I absolutely believe the court was right to hold that we taxpayers have a right to know who else owns it,” Abate said of Brady Industries’ shareholders. “We do not view this as an economic development bill. This is a secrecy bill.”

The bill passed the committee with 11 Republican ‘yes’ votes. Five Democrats voted against the bill. Three lawmakers — two Democrats and one Republican — voted ‘pass.’

It’s unclear if the bill has enough support to pass. Several Republicans who voted ‘yes’ indicated they still had concerns and might change their votes once the bill reaches the full House of Representatives.

Petrie, who sponsored the bill, said it would also exempt the state from providing records to people and entities based outside of the state. Petrie said he was unaware if other states have a similar provision.

“What’s the purpose of the open records? Is it to be open and transparent to the rest of the world? Or is it to be open and transparent to the people residing in Kentucky? I think it’s the latter, not the former,” Petrie said.

Abate, the lawyer for the Kentucky Press Association, said that provision would completely change how the state’s open records law works. He cited the online publication Stat, based outside of Kentucky, which has sued the state to unseal records as part of the state’s lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, the company that makes the opioid-based painkiller OxyContin.

“I don’t see why a publication like that should not have the same right as publications within the state to request records,” Abate said. “There is important watchdog journalism going on for online publications.”