Nicole Jones: Our state will benefit from the passage of the Alabama Jobs Enhancement Act

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Economic developers in Alabama are community-minded individuals who wake up every morning with a goal – to recruit and retain business and industry within our state and enhance the quality of life for Alabamians. It is a rewarding profession built upon the cultivation of relationships and trust earned by maintaining confidentiality throughout a highly complex and competitive process.

The passage of the Alabama Jobs Enhancement Act (HB317) is important to the well-being of all Alabamians because it allows our state to maintain an environment conducive for economic growth. The bill reads correctly as it states, “an economic development professional is not a lobbyist.”

The two professions are different. Economic developers are not lobbyists and should not register as such.

When companies are in the initial stages of potential project or site selection, most of the time they wish to remain confidential for business reasons, hence the reason for nondisclosure agreements (NDAs). We are under NDAs all of the time. The ability to trust officials in the public and private sector with whom they interact with throughout the process is a factor companies consider when choosing new sites. HB317 is critical to maintaining confidentiality as well as the business-friendly climate established throughout our state.

Job creation and retention equals employment opportunities, and continued employment, for Alabamians. As Governor Kay Ivey released in a statement recently, Alabama now has a record 3.7% unemployment rate, the lowest in history.

Despite some confusion perpetuated by individuals who do not understand economic development as a profession, HB317 is not an attempt to weaken ethics laws or allow anyone to profit from public office. Rather, it is an attempt to modernize economic development language and statutes, for example, by removing verbiage requiring notification for project incentives that no longer exist.

HB317 requires more transparency than current statutes in the following ways:

  1. It requires economic developers to notify the Alabama Department of Commerce when they have a project entity that requests tax abatements and/or seeks incentives under the Alabama Jobs Act and other new laws (stipulations not put into place currently).
  2. And, it requires the Alabama Department of Commerce to disclose project information no more than two years after a location announcement (which, as of today, does not have to happen, ever).

Not passing HB317 could have a devastating effect on economic growth within our state.

As stated earlier, economic development is a relationship-building process, and projects oftentimes take years to come to fruition. Almost all economic development projects require confidentiality, so if a site selector working on behalf of a company is required to (incorrectly) register as a lobbyist and disclose the name of his or her client in the initial stages of site selection, Alabama would be marked off of the list of potential sites before the process actually begins. In other words, we (Alabama) would not even get a seat at the table.

As part of daily protocol, site selectors will broadcast a general request/criteria needed for a potential location, and chambers of commerce, for example, may not know for months into a project’s life cycle who the company making the request is. This gives company officials the opportunity to weed out areas that will not work for their business goals – or sometimes better understand if pursuing a new location is even worth the investment.

Economic development is a team effort. It requires the actions of oftentimes hundreds of people in the public and private sector who present information to potential companies in the areas of labor quantity and availability, transportation systems, school systems and other quality of life issues, housing, state and local incentives, taxes, utilities, education and training resources – just to name a few.

Conflict-of-interest issues regarding elected officials and their role with outside employment need to be addressed with a general law that defines conflict-of-interest and employment and need not be confused with HB317. As the Coastal Gateway Regional Economic Development Alliance eloquently pointed out, “HB317 is also notable for what it doesn’t do: It doesn’t change or provide exceptions for Chamber of Commerce employees or others who engage in traditional lobbying activities, and it doesn’t change the prohibition on using public office for personal gain nor the prohibition on corruptly influencing a public official.” The goal of HB317 is to modernize economic development incentive programs, not address ethics issues.

Alabama will benefit from HB317. The state of Alabama competes for projects with other states, and other states (as well as out-of-state site selectors) are carefully watching this legislation and are ready to use it to their advantage. Members of the media have already reported to our firm that out-of-state site selectors whom they have never heard of have suddenly contacted them with “interest” in HB317. We, Alabama, currently have an environment conducive for economic growth and have received national recognition for a favorable business climate. Others around the nation know it, all the way up to The White House. Toyota-Mazda, Rex Lumber, Kimber, New Flyer, and Provalus are only a few names of many recent announcements.

It is unfortunate that the misuse of power by previous elected officials has created an air of distrust amongst the general public. There is, however, a simple, black-and-white answer that extends far beyond the scope of HB317: Pick who you want to represent (your client or your district). Do not double-dip. Ultimately, then Alabama wins, and isn’t that supposed to truly be the end goal of economic development – to improve the economic well-being and quality of life for Alabamians? That is what hundreds of us do every day throughout our state.

I join with the majority of Alabama’s economic development community and respectfully ask legislators to pass the Alabama Jobs Enhancement Act (HB317).

•••

Nicole Jones is one of the first in the state of Alabama to hold the Government and Economic Development Institute’s Economic Development Leadership Certification. As an economic developer, Nicole Jones recruits and retains business, industry, and community every day to create a better quality of life for Alabamians. A pioneer in her field, Jones focused the core of her graduate school research on this topic and has spent a great deal of time over the years completing professional development courses, visiting communities and organizations throughout our state, and speaking about economic development throughout Alabama and the nation.

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