Alabama’s economic developers say they will support two legislative measures this year that will address significant issues that affect recruitment and retention of industry in the state.
Most pressing is a bill to prevent site consultants from having to register as lobbyists under the state’s ethics laws. A bill was passed in the final hours of last year’s session offered this exemption for one year, but it is scheduled to sunset April 1.
Alabama Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield said ethics are important to everyone in economic development, but site consultants must operate with a degree of confidentiality. Not offering that degree of secrecy early in the process will prevent Alabama from being considered for most major projects, he said.
“Confidentiality, particularly in the earliest stages of economic development and working projects, remains important,” Canfield said. “It’s a competitive world out there. Companies, for a variety of reasons, don’t want the world to know when they’re thinking about investing in a new location. There are lots of reasons for that, but the main thing is they don’t want their competitors to know what they are doing.”
Jim Searcy, executive director of the Economic Development Association of Alabama, said often a site search will not lead to a project coming to fruition. Making the initial search public would not be prudent.
“They don’t want to create undue issues or undue concerns for their existing industries or for their existing workforce,” Searcy said. “They’ve got a responsibility to stockholders that they cannot disclose some things that could impact their stock price.”
The EDAA announced its priorities for the upcoming legislative session at its winter conference in Hoover this week. The 2019 legislative session begins March 5. (Read more from Canfield at the conference here and from Gov. Kay Ivey at the conference here.)
Canfield said not being able to guarantee confidentiality will put the state at a competitive disadvantage.
“We’ve been very successful in maintaining that degree of confidentiality,” he said. “We’ve won our fair share of projects. We want to win more. But in order to do that, we’ve got to continue to try to protect the privacy and the confidentiality so that we can move forward with new projects in time.”
Even though confidentiality is crucial at the early stages of a project, Searcy said information is eventually made public when a project is announced.
“Once the project progresses, once they announce, all of the incentives, all of the development agreements are public information,” he said. “So, there is nothing you can’t find out about what was the incentive or the development agreement – what that entails for the state’s investment and what the company is going to do.”
Another proposal the economic development community is supporting is an increase in the gas tax to support infrastructure improvements in the state.
“We’ve had great success in bringing great companies into the state,” Canfield said. “That, in turn, means that there’s an awful lot of products and goods and supplies and raw materials that have to flow in and out of our state. We’ve got to be able to accommodate that by having the best roads and bridges we can.”
Searcy said apart from workforce, infrastructure is the greatest concern companies have when considering sites in the state.
“We’ve been very neglectful in the state for decades and it is starting to impact companies’ consideration of Alabama as a location,” Searcy said. “Until we can show a plan and the resources to execute that plan, then I think we are going to be at a disadvantage in the economic development process.”