By Jamie Stengle
Originally published Jan. 11, 2018
DALLAS – While Texas cities vying to land Amazon’s second headquarters have been vocal about why they think they should win, they’ve resisted releasing copies of their proposals.
Requests by The Associated Press for information related to the proposals were met with replies including arguments that such information can be kept secret because it would give an advantage to competitors.
Some cities did release employees’ emails relating to the bids. A release of emails from Houston offered clues, including a draft of the proposal’s two-page executive summary that said it could offer cash and tax incentives from the city, county and state totaling about $268 million.
Amazon received 238 proposals after issuing the request in September and has said it will announce a decision this year.
Here’s a look at some of the information gleaned from the requests and the laws in Texas that allow governmental bodies to keep such proposals secret:
REQUESTS FOR INFORMATION
In Texas, areas that include cities of Dallas, Austin, Houston and El Paso submitted their bids through regional economic developments groups, which aren’t required to reveal such information and have declined to do so. Requests for information about the bids, including the proposal and how much public money was used to create and promote them, were made to those cities. Each said some of the information may be exempt and is asking the state’s attorney general for an opinion.
Among the reasons cited by Austin, El Paso and Houston was a law stating that information doesn’t have to be released if it would “give advantage to a competitor or bidder.” Dallas, El Paso and Austin cited an exemption related to economic development negotiations in which a governmental body is trying to get a business to locate, stay or expand in the area.
Houston’s letter to the attorney general adds that it takes no position with respect to the public availability of the requested information but that the city has notified the “third parties whose proprietary information has been requested” that they must submit to the attorney general a legal briefing justifying withholding the information.
Amazon said in its request for proposals in September that “certain aspects” of the project and details about the company “are confidential, proprietary and constitute trade secrets.” An Amazon spokesman declined to comment.
TEXAS LAW ON THE RELEASE OF INFORMATION
Experts in Texas say that the law makes it nearly impossible to get such information.
Kelley Shannon, executive director of the nonprofit Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said that a 2015 ruling from the Texas Supreme Court lowered the threshold for arguing competitive bidding as an exemption from disclosure under the Texas Public Information Act. She said the ruling now allows any company doing business with the government to claim the exemption.
She also said a governmental entity previously had to show that a decisive advantage would be given, but now it’s any advantage.
“The people of our state can’t really follow the money anymore,” Shannon said, adding, “Taxpayers have a right to see how their money is being spent.”
Joe Larsen, a First Amendment attorney in Houston and board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation, said it was difficult to get such information even before that ruling, noting that governmental bodies could use the exemption dealing with economic development negotiations, which was also cited by cities in relation to the Amazon request.
Larsen said that not revealing the details of such bids is “basically just shoving the public out of a fundamentally important matter involving the finances of a governmental body.”
WHAT EMAILS REVEAL
Most of the cities did release employees’ emails related to the bid, including those from Houston that reveal some information about their bid.
One email released from the city includes a draft of the executive summary of Houston’s Amazon proposal, which says it will be offering cash and tax incentives that total about $268 million. It says the city, county and the state are prepared to offer the “competitive package of incentives.”
City spokesman Alan Bernstein said he couldn’t confirm specifics because the bid is “the sole province” of the Greater Houston Partnership. Clint Pasche, a spokesman for the Greater Houston Partnership, declined to comment on the final incentive package that was submitted to Amazon.
Officials in Austin have previously said they city didn’t include any financial incentives in its proposal because it has a public process it must engage in first for such projects.