Other Voices: Governor’s laughable excuse for not releasing records

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 23, 2020

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper continues to insist that he and other state officials are unable to release a page of records related to incentives the state offered to land an Apple campus in Research Triangle Park two years ago. That’s right — 2018.

The governor’s office and state commerce department tell the News & Observer’s Tyler Dukes that recruitment of Apple remains an “open project” — a designation officials are still using to deny records requests.

We’re not sure if Cooper is trying to avoid the controversy that sometimes follows states revealing how much they’re willing to open their pockets for a new business. We don’t know if there’s actually a viable new Apple project that North Carolina is negotiating. It doesn’t matter. Cooper’s records dodge is a lame attempt to skirt open records laws.

Some background: More than two years ago, North Carolina was in the running for the huge Apple prize that would’ve brought thousands of high-paying jobs, not to mention millions in investment and the kind of branding states covet. That December, however, Apple announced that its new campus would land in Austin, not North Carolina.

It’s possible North Carolina is now in the running for a campus similar to the one that Texas snagged; just weeks after the Austin announcement, a firm with connections to Apple purchased 280 acres worth of tracts in RTP. If there is a new project, then incentives surrounding that bid can and should remain secret for now.

But the old bid is over. North Carolina lost. The public should get to see how much our money the governor offered.

“The law seems to be pretty clear that once a project is no longer viable, the interest in privacy or confidentiality subsides,” said Brooks Fuller, director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition at Elon University, told The News & Observer.

We understand that incentives are uncomfortable. Some think they’re a bad overpay for corporations that already have healthy bottom lines, and that cities and states bidding against each other benefits no one but the company being wooed. Others believe incentives are a necessary if sometimes distasteful part of luring the businesses and talent that help cities and states thrive. We’re somewhat in the latter camp, with the caveat that incentives should be offered responsibly — which is something the public should get to evaluate.

That doesn’t always go smoothly. Last year, Amazon canceled its plans to build a corporate campus in the New York City borough of Queens after lawmakers and activists protested giving $3 billion in government incentives to a wealthy company that took anti-union stances. (Raleigh and Charlotte were among the dozens of cities and counties that also bid on Amazon’s “second headquarters.”)

Would North Carolina’s Apple incentives prompt similar grumbling? We don’t know, but Cooper would be far from the first public official who wants to avoid bad headlines and fodder for political opponents. (See above: Trump/tax returns.)

We’re troubled, however, at a pattern of the governor being too close to the vest with information that should be public. In 2018, Cooper was unnecessarily reticent about questions surrounding the state’s $58 million agreement with the developers of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and more recently, the governor’s office and Department of Health and Human Services were slow to respond to multiple requests for records, data and policies involving COVID-19 and nursing homes, which had seen a surge of infections.

Some of those requests still haven’t been filled.

Such secrecy doesn’t serve the public, whether it’s the president’s tax returns or North Carolina’s bid for a big business prize.

N.C. lawmakers should close the open records loophole the governor thinks he has regarding Apple, and Cooper should stop hiding information the public deserves to see.

— Charlotte Observer and Raleigh News & Observer