Sunshine Week: Transparency Portals Show It Can Be Done (more easily than you think)

March 10, 2024

Note: Sunshine Week was launched in 2005 by the then-American Society of Newspaper Editors. It is designed to draw attention to the perils of a secretive government and the critical importance of an open, transparent government. This year, Good Jobs First celebrates by highlighting places modeling great transparency around economic development incentives and corporate behavior.

Sunshine Week: Your Right To Know. A picture of a sun behind a capital building and an open envelope.

Late last month, Tennessee lawmakers voted to expand the types of records the state’s tourism department can legally hide from the public. The reason? To privately offer the NFL outrageous amounts of the public’s money to woo a future 2030 Super Bowl.

While the bill isn’t final — the senate is scheduled to vote on it March 12 — just the prospect is maddening.

It’s moments like this when I find refuge in thinking about places doing economic development right. And given that it’s Sunshine Week (March 10-16), so let me share some of my favorites (and my colleagues will be doing the same, every day this week, so be sure and bookmark our blog!).

Let’s get started.

Franklin County, Ohio, led by Auditor Michael Stinziano, breaks down how much money public services lose to corporate tax abatements.

The dashboard has figures on overall losses through three abatement programs (the Enterprise Zone (EZ) Abatements, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Abatements, and Community Reinvestment Area (CRA) Abatement):

Map shows three programs that abate taxes in Franklin County, Ohio. The three programs are Enterprise Zone (EZ) Abatements, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Abatements, and Community Reinvestment Area (CRA) Abatements.
Source: Franklin County Tax Abatements Dashboard

As well as losses through Tax Increment Financing:

Map of Franklin County shows blue shapes that represent areas where Tax Increment Financing Districts exist.
Source: Franklin County Tax Increment Financing Dashboard

You can even download an Excel spreadsheet with property-specific details. So nice.

You can also see totals on the website, so we know children’s services lost over $22 million, libraries lost $15 million, the board of developmental disabilities lost over $31 million and public schools lost a whopping $133 million in 2023.

Knowing what subsidies cost is vital to comparing their benefits. These figures only became available several years ago.

Good Jobs First in 2022 rated 4 or 5 major incentive programs in every state on their transparency. We determined whether the public gets:

  • advance notice of a subsidy award
  • the subsidy amount
  • the name of the company getting the subsidy
  • the address and type of project
  • projected and actual jobs created
  • whether the disclosure websites are easy to navigate
Read the report.

Nevada took the top spot, getting 64 out of 100 points. All five of its programs provided the public the total subsidy value, the number of projected jobs and wages, and the actual number of new jobs and wages. All five programs were fairly easy to navigate online.

Nevada also provides the public with recipient information on data centers (cloud-computing server farms) before a project is done. It’s the only state-level data center program to do this, and data centers are mushrooming these days.

If Nevada can provide this level of transparency and the sky hasn’t fallen – Tesla has been joined by Google, Apple, and Panasonic in northern Nevada – so can other states.

Other states doing things right:

  • Kansas publishes online company-specific data for 11 programs, including the controversial STAR Bonds and Promoting Employment Across Kansas (PEAK) programs. The new disclosure portal is the result of 2019 legislation that received bipartisan support.
  • Film subsidies can be really difficult to find, but in Virginia, the public will find project industry codes, as well as the number of jobs promised and created.

For other good examples, check out our 2022 report.

When a company seeks the public’s money, they lose their right to secrecy. Shame on the NFL for expecting to negotiate secretly with Tennessee officials. The public has every right to know how public officials put a price on hosting the Super Bowl (and while the event might boost Nashville for two weeks what do taxpayers in Memphis and Knoxville think about footing the bill, too?).

Here’s how Franklin County Auditor Stinziano’s office sees its role: “to ensure each incentive and its ongoing status are transparent and providing the benefits promised to our communities (and if not, having a record of why).”

What a bracing concept! How about it, most other places?

Happy Sunshine Week.

Read more

Sunshine Week: Oregon EZ program lets you see into the future and into the past

Sunshine Week: Madison, Wisc. Offers A Shining Example of Transparent Economic Development

Sunshine Week: Philadelphia Transparency Spurs Reductions in Corporate Tax Breaks

Sunshine Week: The Golden State (California) Gets a Gold Star