Columns » John Brummett

Secret government for jobs

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In the 1990s Little Rock boosters worried that Bill Clinton might not put his presidential library in the city because the local newspaper was editorially unfriendly to the president.

It was such an odd, even offensive, notion. Would the holder of the most powerful office in the world really worry quite that much about a little paper in Little Rock? Might he be that petulant? If so, would you really want his self-serving library, anyhow? Were boosters saying that a newspaper editorial writer ought to temper his opinions in deference to a civic project? How about the public's right to know and, intrinsically, its right to a diversity of viewpoints?

Now the Hewlett-Packard announcement in Conway has raised a few new issues about the inherent conflict between newspapers' pursuit of information and boosters' pursuit of jobs — about, indeed, a pressure point about which is more important.

Is it more vital to land good new jobs for residents or is the greater priority being fully accountable with information to those residents about what's being done with their public money by their elected leaders acting in their supposed best interest?

On the day of the big unveiling in Conway last week, Maria Haley, director of the state Economic Development Department and thus the state's chief economic booster by her very job definition, gave an interview to the local Log Cabin Democrat. She exulted that nearly everything had gone perfectly.

But then she complained that a Little Rock-based business publication had broken the news three days ahead of time on its Web site. She said the publicity threatened the whole project. She said everyone should have abided by the clear signals sent by the fact that she wasn't commenting, nor was Gov. Mike Beebe, nor were Hewlett-Packard officials.

In other words, this taxpayer-remunerated public servant was saying that the press ought to tuck tail whenever authority figures decline to comment.

Joe Holmes is the public information officer for the Economic Development Department and an old newsroom hand. It's his job to clean up after his boss's mess.

He told me Monday that Haley hadn't meant to say the press shouldn't pursue information. “Heavens, no,” is the way he put it. He said she had meant to say that such deals are delicate until they're done and that the premature release of incomplete information can lead to public over-excitement, corporate discomfort and stress on final negotiations.

Meantime, there's this: Two of the inducements granted Hewlett-Packard are secret. They are the ones granting performance-based incentives over 10 years.

The company will get a corporate income tax credit and a straight rebate, meaning a state government check, if it meets certain job and payroll targets.

Companies wish to keep these specifics secret so that competitors won't see what they intend to do in terms of job numbers and salaries.

So let's play You're the Editor. It's a fun game.

Let's say your finest reporter gets copies of these secret agreements. Plainly, these documents have to do with a public agency and with the forgiving of normally applied taxes. Clearly, there's a legitimate taxpayer interest.

Let's say the governor calls and says, “Please don't publish this. The company deeply resents that these targets could get into the public domain. It could still pull out or reduce this whole project, and that would hurt our people. You're going to be threatening new jobs for your neighbors. I know you have a responsibility to information, but don't you have a responsibility to general economic interest of the community?”

What do you do?

I'd probably say, “Oh, OK, darnit. We'll hold up for now. When you cut 'em a rebate check, that'll be public anyway. We'll run that. And don't think for a minute, governor, that you can keep secret a direct appropriation of taxpayer money.”

Then I might try to extract a commensurate favor from him on something or other — a 24-hour head start on some other news development, I mean.

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