Throwback Thursday: Commerce’s long history of incentives secrecy

October 10, 2019

Inside Insight

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Transparency

This week, state Sen. Dick Harpootlian filed a lawsuit against the S.C. Department of Commerce to force the disclosure of Commerce records on two corporate incentives deals, one of which included a nearly $36 million state grant for the Giti Tire plant in Chester County, written about by The Nerve here and here.

This is just the latest example of Commerce’s habitual refusal to exercise even the most basic levels of transparency, notwithstanding the state’s open-records laws, as The Nerve has extensively documented over the years. In 2011, Commerce refused to provide any details on how $270 million in taxpayer-backed bonds for the Boeing assembly plant was actually spent. In 2013, it took four open-records requests over 18 months to obtain documents for the BMW incentives agreement – and even then Commerce refused to detail the number of jobs created and tax credits claimed. Commerce refuses to this day to disclose the original cost-benefit estimates for the 2015 Volvo project and 2017 expansion. In 2018, Commerce refused to disclose even the “general summary of state and local incentives” provided to any S.C. counties that wanted to compete for the Amazon headquarters project.

After initially refusing to provide details on the 2013 incentives deal for the Element Electronics plant in Fairfield County, Commerce finally provided heavily redacted records – blacking out information such as a basic cost breakdown and names of company officials. Element, incidentally, announced in 2018 that it was closing its plant, though it later reversed that decision. And, not surprisingly, during legislative deliberations on the proposed Carolina Panthers incentives deal earlier this year, Commerce would only release a two-page “analysis” rife with unsubstantiated figures and assumptions.

The General Assembly has aided and abetted this long lack of transparency. The story featured below details how in 2014, the Commerce director asked House budget writers for “as much as [they] can spare” for Commerce’s secret deal-closing fund. The House Ways and Means Committee appropriated $37 million – despite having no details on how the money would be spent. Nearly all of that amount was later awarded for the Giti Tire plant.

Blind Trust: House Panel Gives Commerce $37 Million for Secret Deals

S.C. Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt had his hand out at a recent House Ways and Means subcommittee meeting, recalled Rep. Gary Simrill, the subcommittee chairman.

“He asked me, ‘I need as much as you can spare,’” said Simrill, R-York, when contacted Saturday by The Nerve.

In the end, the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee last month decided to “spare” $37.3 million in taxpayer money for Commerce’s “deal closing” fund, though, according to Simrill, Hitt didn’t ask for that amount during the subcommittee meeting.

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