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In our opinion: Utah oversight bill sounds like a perfect recipe for a scandal

A committee designed to oversee the Governor’s Office of Economic Development should operate in the open

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Steve Griffin, Deseret News

The public’s work should be done in the open, and that is especially true when it comes to a legislative effort to scrutinize a part of the executive branch.

Utah lawmakers are considering SB30, a bill that would provide much-needed oversight of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. That’s the agency that hands out tax breaks and other incentives to corporations — sometimes to lure them here from out of state, and other times to keep them from leaving Utah and going elsewhere.

Any agency that has that kind of power deserves scrutiny. But in order to provide that scrutiny, the bill would re-establish the old Economic Development Legislative Liaison Committee, and then make it entirely exempt from the state’s Open and Public Meetings Act and the Government Records Access and Management Act.

In other words, the public would have no idea what this committee is doing or whether it is providing “oversight” in name only. Further, it would deny the public the right to request committee records.

It sounds like a perfect recipe for a scandal.

Lawmakers will argue that they need secrecy in order to protect proprietary information about the corporations that are seeking tax incentives. No company would consider coming to the state if the price it had to pay included public knowledge of its important secrets. 

We are sensitive to this need. That’s why there are already exemptions to protect such information without granting blanket exemptions to the laws that have kept governments in Utah transparent for years. Why not simply allow the committee to close portions of meetings that would deal with such information? Why make everything off limits?

Lawmakers must be aware of the irony here. They passed open meetings and records laws to keep governments accountable to the people they serve. They have applied these laws to everything from school boards to state agencies, each of which at times deals with confidential information. 

The Office of Economic Development’s 15-member board has itself been subject to these laws for years, as has its 11-member coordinating council. 

Passing SB30 in its current form would be bad public policy and an insult to the taxpayers whose money is being spent.