A controversial bill to restrict the public’s access to records about state economic development projects cleared both chambers of the Georgia Legislature this week, with an unprecedented amendment that would also delay access to information from the University of Georgia Athletic Association and other athletic departments at state public colleges.
The bill, SB 323, would give all public college athletic associations 90 days to respond to an open records request. The bill covers all Georgia public colleges, including the four most powerful athletic departments – UGA, Georgia Tech, Georgia State and Georgia Southern.
All state agencies, including athletic associations, must currently respond with at least acknowledgement of a request within three business days. The actual fulfillment of records requests can sometimes extend longer.
Under the amendment, “salary information for non-clerical staff,” which would include coaches and executives, would be the only exception to the 90-day rule.
The measure would withhold for a longer period of time such newsworthy information as expenditures, such as the Georgia Bulldogs’ new ballyhooed indoor football practice facility in Athens. It also would delay disclosure of information such as the recent ramp up in spending by UGA for its football recruiting under new head coach Kirby Smart.
The bill was decried by First Amendment and open government advocates even before the latest expansion to alter how athletic departments handle open records requests. The bill now heads to Gov. Nathan Deal’s desk for his signature.
Hollie Manheimer, the executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said “this amendment — at the eleventh hour of the legislative session — is an affront to the purpose of Georgia’s open records act, and all citizens should be disturbed.”
State Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, a co-author of the amendment, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Wednesday the bill would give departments who receive “a shocking amount” of records requests, particularly during recruiting periods, extra time to fulfill them.
A message left for the UGA Athletic Association also wasn’t immediately returned.
The Macon Telegraph, in a story about the amendment to SB 323, quoted Ehrhart as saying: “This will help the startup programs, this applies to every single intercollegiate program in this state, every university from the University of Georgia … [to] any intercollegiate sport at a D2, D3 school.”
“It just allows us to play on the same field as Alabama and everybody else,” he told the Telegraph.
Smart, who was hired from Alabama earlier this year at a $3.75 million annual salary, made a splash in recruiting this past winter, spending lavishly on helicopter and plane trips to meet with blue chip athletes.
Ehrhart, a UGA grad, told the AJC that the athletic departments “don’t have the capacity” to handle the requests they currently receive, particularly as it relates to information about recruiting. Other states curtail that information he said, and the measure will help protect recruits’ sensitive personal information.
UGA’s athletic department, by far the most revenue flush of the state college athletic associations, recently approved a $117 million budget for the current fiscal year and has tens of millions of dollars in reserve funds. It is currently building a $30 million indoor practice facility to be paid largely by donors.
The bill was originally introduced by three of Deal’s floor leaders in the senate and would allow any state agency to conceal documents about economic development projects involving business expansions of $25 million in investment or 50 jobs.
After a deal is signed or negotiations terminated, the records would become public.
The law currently gives this exemption solely to the state Department of Economic Development. Critics of the bill say it is overly broad and should be narrowed to explicitly state that it only covers projects under the direction of that department.
First Amendment advocates fear the wording might be used by any arm of the state government to conceal activities that it claims will create jobs, such as government contracts, road building or perhaps a real estate development involving state agencies or colleges.
But the latest amendment addresses another class of state records – documents held by athletic associations at powerful colleges and universities.
“The amendment is so broadly written, it would make secret contract terms, letters of complaint or inquiry from the NCAA, plans for the expenditure of university and athletic association funds, and even more,” Manhaimer said. “No other public agency in Georgia is given 90 days to conduct its business in secret.”
Ehrhart said the bill is narrower in scope and characterized critics’ contention about what the bill does as arguing over “how many angels can we get to dance on the head of a pin.”
Staff writer Chip Towers contributed to this story.