Memphis considers withholding names of companies that seek tax breaks

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Both Memphis and Shelby County sometimes offer big tax breaks to companies willing to do business here.

When a company applies for a tax incentive, that information is public record under Tennessee law. But the city and county government's Economic Development and Growth Engine or EDGE board, is considering referring to companies by code names until they get ready to vote on any deal.

"If there's a company that's looking to leave their present location, you may have talent that decides to leave prematurely, so this is a way to avert that," said Memphis City Councilman Martavius Jones who is also a non-voting member of the EDGE board.

The company's name would still be revealed once any deal heads to the board for a vote, Jones said, but he thinks the name is the least interesting part of any deal.

"I think that the public probably cares more about how much as opposed to to whom it's going to," he said.

Information like the amount of the tax break would be still be available to the public prior to a vote. But University of Memphis law professor Steve Mulroy said "who" matters just as much as "what."

"It might be that the citizens also want to know the kind of industry that's coming. What kind of track record that industry has with respect to employee relations and the environment or things like that," Mulroy said.

The attorney for the EDGE board has reached out to the Tennessee Attorney General to determine if they can legally withhold a company's name. Mulroy has his doubts.

"Given the spirit of the Tennessee Open Records law, which both the legislature and courts have said is supposed to be generously, expansively interpreted to provide the maximum amount of public information, this does seem to be a little bit at odds with that general notion," he said.