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Tennessee Senate tweaks bill seeking to keep tourism records secret for 10 years

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee’s Republican-controlled Senate on Monday tweaked a proposal initially designed to keep the state’s tourism records hidden from public scrutiny, bidding to add more sunshine into how the state secures high-profile events.

Last month, the GOP-dominant House approved legislation that would have allowed the head of the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development to exempt any public records for 10 years deemed “sensitive” by both the commissioner and attorney general.

The bill, backed by Republican Gov. Bill Lee, alarmed open government advocates who argued that tourism records could legally be destroyed within that 10-year period and thus never see the light of day.

In response, Senate members changed the proposed bill to say that tourism records deemed “sensitive” can bypass the 10-year waiting period if the state funds involved have been dispersed, the negotiated event concludes or the contract entered into by the state expires.

While there’s still a chance some documents could be withheld for 10 years, the Senate’s proposal also states that those records cannot be destroyed during that time period.

Yet some Senate lawmakers expressed discontent adding more public records exemptions.

“Anytime we tinker with the open records law and allow exemptions for different parties and stuff, I think we’re going down a slippery slope,” said Sen. Todd Gardenhire, a Republican, who voted against the proposal.

Some Nashville Democrats also opposed the legislation even while acknowledging Music City would be the primary benefit of attracting high-profile events.

“What could possibly be so secretive that we’re trying to hide?” asked Democratic Sen. Charlane Oliver. “Why do we need a bill like this that does not promote transparency?”

Ultimately, the Senate voted 23-6 with two other members choosing to vote “present.” The bill must now go back to the House chamber, where representatives will be asked to accept or reject the changes.

Tennessee’s statutes include more than 500 exemptions to public records, and more exist through case law.

Lee had vowed to make government more transparent when he took over the top elected office in 2019, but to date, has not loosened those exemptions since taking office.

According to records obtained by the Department of Tourism, officials have been discussing potentially hosting a Super Bowl for nearly a year. In an email from the department’s research director, Josh Gibson, other events the state has eyed are a College Football Playoff championship, Wrestlemania, and World Rugby.

Gibson wrote in 2023 that the state was considering hosting a Super Bowl by 2030 or 2031, but held off from disclosing how much a bid would cost the state. Meanwhile, he detailed that hosting Wrestlemania in 2027 would potentially cost $9 million in host fees and a CFP National championship game could cost anywhere from $15 million to $18 million in fees.

Separately, the tourism agency also helped provide talking points to at least the House sponsor, Republican Rep. Andrew Farmer, on why the bill is needed, which stressed that a 10-year waiting period to release public records was because “larger events, such as the Super Bowl, negotiations are years in the making; therefore, these protections need to be in place 5 to 10 years.”

The Tennessee Titans are currently working to move into a new enclosed stadium for the 2027 season.

The Nashville-based project carries the largest public price tag for a stadium, totaling $1.2 billion, which tops the $850 million commitment from New York for Buffalo’s new $1.5 billion stadium.

The new stadium is have a capacity of about 60,000 and feature a translucent roof.

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