Stewart: When you take government money, taxpayers are your stockholders

Free-market capitalism, to which I subscribe as fundamental to American prosperity, works best with limited government meddling. That’s certainly true of overly burdensome regulations that stifle growth and discourage investment. But just as harmful — and less talked about by conservatives — is a growing expectation that business should be able to feed at the government trough with no accountability for its profiting at taxpayer expense.

We’re seeing it in Kentucky, where the governor and Republican lawmakers have launched an assault on government transparency in the name of “economic development.”

David Thompson, executive director of the Kentucky Press Association, writes that House Bill 387 “undermines, turns upside down, practically destroys the Kentucky Open Records laws as we know it.”

Frankfort attorney and longtime former Assistant Attorney General Amye Bensenhaver, the godmother of government transparency in Kentucky, is equally alarmed.

“The bill will expand three existing exceptions to the law that are intended to promote economic development in the state that have been liberally construed by the courts and the attorney general through the years,” she writes. “It will introduce two new exceptions relating to economic development. These revisions will ensure that we never have to bother our silly little heads with such dreck as rejected incentive packages, like the package offered by the City of Louisville to Amazon to relocate it second headquarters in the city at an estimated cost to the taxpayers of $2.5 billion, or who the shareholders in Braidy Industries are despite the fact that we have a $15 million investment in the company.”

The bill comes a year after lawmakers, in legislation that came to be known in newspaper circles as “Alfred’s Law” because of its retaliation against the dogged journalism of former State Journal reporter Alfred Miller, further enshrouded in secrecy so-called P3s, or public-private partnerships, which are the fashionable way to fund big government while lining the pockets of private business.

I’m not naïve about the way the game is played. For decades, job-hungry communities and states have been throwing taxpayer dollars at corporations to outbid their neighbors for factories, professional sports teams and shopping malls. Taxpayers are said to come out ahead because of the jobs created, a more diversified tax base and improved quality of life.


But private business that partakes of government largesse must accept that you forfeit the normal confidentiality afforded transactions between private parties. When you accept government subsidies, taxpayers become stakeholders. Your business is their business.

Shame on lawmakers who want to funnel taxpayers’ money to corporate interests on the one hand, then tell citizens it’s none of their business on the other.

Steve Stewart is a vice president and group manager of Boone Newspapers Inc., which owns the Winchester Sun.