By Jess Nicholas
In an effort to improve transparency in government, the Alabama Ethics Act unintentionally put the state at a disadvantage relative to its peers – something a new bill, HB317, the Alabama Jobs Enhancement Act, seeks to correct.
It is imperative that HB317 passes in order to keep the state of Alabama on an equal playing field with its competing states.
Because the language in the original Ethics Act was unclear, there has recently been question as to whether economic development professionals, companies seeking to locate in Alabama, and the people they hire to select locations for them – known best as “site selectors” to the public – were subject to being labeled as lobbyists.
At first blush, one might support that assumption. The Alabama Ethics Act was written, at least in part, to keep lobbyists in check and reduce corruption in state government. Unfortunately, in this case, the baby is in danger of being thrown out with the bathwater.
Because the Ethics Act is unclear over the role economic development officials play in seeking state incentives for projects, there has been a lack of clarity as to whether those professionals are technically lobbyists. HB317 would clarify that they are not.
Moreover, HB317 would clarify that site selectors and the companies that hire them are not lobbyists. Taken to the extreme, current ethics laws are unclear over whether site selectors are lobbyists, as well as the people that pay them. The people that pay them include management of businesses and industries themselves. Thinking logically, there is little justification from considering the CEO of a company to be a lobbyist just because he or she pays a site selector to work with cities to find a good location for the company’s next store.
If Alabama were to consider site selectors and economic development professionals to be lobbyists, the effect would be chilling. Alabama’s competing states do not deem site selectors and economic development professionals to be lobbyists, and if Alabama tried to force those individuals to register as lobbyists, it is far more likely that Alabama sites would simply be eliminated from consideration in a competitive situation.
It is important to note that HB317 does not diminish current ethics laws in any way. It doesn’t exempt elected officials or true lobbyists from complying with the law. It does, however, allow economic development professionals to maintain confidentiality in the early stages of project development. Companies expect confidentiality during those times, and will abandon communities and states that do not respect their need for it.
You don’t have to go far to find examples of how confidentiality has been important to our local areas. Recent projects like Provalus in Brewton, Brown Precision Inc. in Atmore, Portland Outdoors in Evergreen and Sterling Packaging in Monroeville all depended on it during the recruitment phase.
While HB317 would explicitly grant confidentiality in some cases, it would also make ethics laws much stronger by filling in gaps left by the passage of the Alabama Ethics Act.
For example, it would fully codify the current site prep grant law for the State Industrial Development Authority. It would align the requirements of various incentives programs, clean up technical mistakes in statutory drafting, and most importantly, align the list of incentives for which a project is required to notify the Alabama Department of Commerce with the current list of state incentives. Current law requires project notification for incentives that no longer exist, and does not require notification for several new incentives, chief among them the Alabama Jobs Act.
HB317 is also notable for what it doesn’t do: It doesn’t change or provide exceptions for Chamber of Commerce employees or others who engage in traditional lobbying activities, and it doesn’t change the prohibition on using public office for personal gain nor the prohibition on corruptly influencing a public official.
The state of Alabama took a major step forward with the Alabama Ethics Act, but left a few details unattended. Those details could prove to be extremely detrimental to bringing jobs and projects to our communities. HB317 closes those gaps, and it should be passed.
Jess Nicholas is Associate Director of Coastal Gateway Economic Development Alliance.