Tenn. lawmakers change Super Bowl public records bill, could still keep documents closed for years

Published 5:27 pm Thursday, March 28, 2024

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By Adam Friedman

Tennessee Lookout

Tennessee lawmakers have tweaked a bill to allow the public to eventually know how much money officials spend to bring an NFL Super Bowl to Nashville. 

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But the legislation still allows signed contracts to remain hidden for years.

“This is a better bill, but it requires the tourism department to follow its intent,” said Deborah Fisher, the executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.

Under the new version — which passed the state Senate Monday and is awaiting another vote in the House — once the state tourism department spends money, the contracts should become available to the public. 

In practice, the public could have to wait years to know how much officials would spend to host big-ticket tourism events like the National Football League championship game or a political party’s national convention since the spending of money could happen long after a deal is signed. 

The bill’s original version allowed the tourism department, following a consultation with the state attorney general, to keep records confidential for 10 years. The time period left open the possibility that officials could destroy a contract before the public could request access to it. 

Fisher said ideally, any state contract would become available once signed, which the new version of the bill does not do. 

Tennessee and Nashville officials could put forward a bid as early as this year to host a Super Bowl. Those familiar with the process expect Nashville to host the game by 2030. 

The Tennessee Titans will open their new $2.1 billion, of which $1.26 billion is funded by taxpayers, in 2027. The NFL has yet to select a location for 2028 Super Bowl and beyond.  

The state’s tourism department wanted the exemption to help negotiate deals. Amanda Murphy, a spokesperson for the tourism department, previously told the Lookout that the NFL did not request this legislation. 

But Victor Matheson, a College of Holy Cross sports economist, said this bill is “exactly” what the NFL would want.

“The Super Bowl deal is often embarrassing for the NFL because of the demands they make and for the politicians that agree to give the league things like free high-end hotel rooms and police escorts,” Matheson said. 

The only publicly available contract between the NFL and a host city is a draft copy of the one for the 2018 game held in Minneapolis, Minn. 

The league asked the Minneapolis Super Bowl bid committee to cover the cost of presidential hotel suites for executives, give them 35,000 free parking spaces and police escorts to the game for owners, along with dozens of other requests, according to a 153-page document obtained by the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2014. 

Slippery slope’

Republicans sponsoring the bill have defended the legislation as necessary to get the Super Bowl. 

Rep. Andrew Farmer, R-Sevierville, said during the bill’s presentation that Tennessee officials were better stewards of tax dollars than to give into the NFL’s demands on expenses for unnecessary items. 

But not every Republican has bought this argument. 

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said that allowing record exemptions was “a slippery slope” and voted against it. 

The legislation’s change in the Senate is partially credited to the Beacon Center of Tennessee. The conservative think tank sharply criticized the bill’s original version. The organization is particularly critical of spending tax dollars on what they deem as “frivolous” items.