When Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee was first elected to the state’s highest office in 2018, he said in a statement on his website that he was committed to transparency.
“Tennessee taxpayers deserve transparent and open government,” Lee’s transition website said. The governor “will lead a comprehensive review of our open records and open meetings acts to make government more transparent for you.”
Well, it looks like Lee needs to reconsider that promise. It appears as if his administration has conveniently forgotten that commitment to being transparent with the public — including state lawmakers — about government operations.
Consider, for example, the efforts of one government department to keep much information confidential.
A proposed bill aims to allow the Tennessee Department of Tourism Development to protect information from public records laws for 10 years if the tourism commissioner and attorney general deem it “sensitive.”
What does this mean? The word “sensitive” can mean different things to different people. Advocates of open government are skeptical.
“We have no problem with private and trade secrets of private businesses being confidential because that’s the standard,” Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Open Government Coalition, said in an interview Monday. “The part we don’t agree with is that literally any record in the department can be kept confidential if the commissioner deems it sensitive.”
Fisher said if the bill passes, there will be no way for anyone to appeal the commissioner’s denial of an open records request. The definition of “sensitive” is at the discretion of the commissioner, making it too subjective.
That issue may not necessarily be high on the governor’s priority list, given that he will soon introduce his controversial school voucher expansion bill, which he will undoubtedly have to spend a lot of time defending. But that doesn’t take away from the importance of Lee’s voice on the subject.
The bill, sponsored by House Majority Leader William Lambert, R-Portland, is modeled after an exemption the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development passed in 1988 that kept records deemed “sensitive” confidential in for five years. Administration officials said the bill is needed to help attract companies to Tennessee.
Knowledge is power
Tourism is a high priority for the governor and leaders across the state, and understandably so. Tennessee is the envy of many states for its natural beauty, attractions in all major parts of the state, and cities like Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga that offer unique experiences to visitors in and out of the state. Tourism is a mega-industry, with tourists spending an estimated $29 billion in the Volunteer State in 2023.
Yet hiding any records or documents in the department responsible for promoting the state from public view is unacceptable.
Here’s an example of what might never have seen the light of day if this bill had passed into law: According to documents obtained through a public records request, the Department of Tourism Development paid about $11,000 to at least 11 local influencers individuals to post on Instagram, Facebook and TikTok are promoting a $2.5 million program in 2021 to give away $250 worth of air travel vouchers to people to visit the state.
The release of information about this Lee administration initiative would be left up to the department’s commissioner and the attorney general, according to Fisher.
What are the chances that they will approve the release of this information?
The public has a right to know how public money is being used on their behalf. And the public certainly has a right to know how that money is being used to attract visitors who flock to their cities for entertainment, conventions, etc. The public must be kept informed. This bill will undermine the people, period.
Keeping information about one of Tennessee’s leading industries out of the public eye is insulting and reflects the contempt that at least some legislators and state leaders have for their constituents.
Take this effort to blackout government business seriously. Tourism is powered by people, both tourists and taxpayers, and so everything should be on the table.