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Whitmer 'covered' by non-disclosure agreement during biz incentive development

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was among an unspecified number of Michigan leaders who signed a non-disclosure agreement related to the recent development of a roughly $1 billion business incentive program, the Democratic governor confirmed Wednesday.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, and House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell, also were among those who inked the agreements with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, their spokespeople said.

Sen. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, previously disclosed he had signed a non-disclosure agreement with the economic development agency.

Whitmer told reporters Wednesday that she was "covered" by an agreement signed on behalf of the administration and was one of a few people who "had to be aware of some of the details" related to possible business interests in the incentive package.

"There’s a lot of proprietary information that is shared as states are vying for the opportunity to draw this kind of potential massive investment and future critical economic manufacturing opportunities into our states. That information is not going to be shared with anyone who doesn’t do that," Whitmer said. 

From left, Michigan House leader Jason Wentworth, Michigan Senate leader Mike Shirkey, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Michigan Economic Development Corporation CEO Quentin Messer Jr. at a press conference in Detroit on Dec. 20, 2021.

She added that the new business incentive program will have more transparency further down the line. 

"Ultimately, all the terms will be aired as decisions are made at the Strategic Fund, but in the initial stages that confidentiality is important," Whitmer said. "They’re never going to engage with us if we don’t participate on those terms.”

Shirkey and Wentworth also both signed non-disclosure agreements during the development of the business incentive package, their spokespeople said. 

"The administration's team required that to be in the room for the negotiations," said Gideon D'Assandro, a spokesman for Wentworth. 

The business incentive package signed into law this week featured $1 billion for economic development incentives and $409 million in assistance for businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. State leaders have said the package was prompted by Ford Motor Co.'s September announcement of an $11 billion investment, along with 11,000 jobs, in Kentucky and Tennessee.

General Motors Co. and its possible location of a new battery plant in Michigan was a target of the package as well as a few other potential investments. 

Along with the $1 billion appropriation, state leaders enacted a package of bills to create the Strategic Outreach and Attraction Reserve Fund in the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. The $1 billion would eventually go into the SOAR Fund and could only move to two other new funds — the Michigan Strategic Site Readiness Fund and the Critical Industry Fund — with the approval of lawmakers, giving them influence over the decisions.

The site readiness fund would be charged with spending money on activities related to "strategic sites" and "mega-strategic sites." The other fund, the Critical Industry Fund, would be focused on providing investments to "qualified businesses for deal-closing, gap financing or other economic assistance to create new qualified jobs or make capital investments."

Michigan Economic Development Corporation CEO Quentin Messer Jr. speaks at the press conference and bill signing at Wayne County Community College East Campus in Detroit on Dec. 20, 2021.   Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signs an incentive bill into law.

At a Monday bill signing event in Detroit, Michigan Economic Development Corporation's President and CEO Quentin Messer further defended the non-disclosure agreements as "standard operating procedure."

The process to negotiate and pass the legislation, Messer said, was an example of "what happens when information can be shared, when there’s a trust relationship and communication.” But the process will become more transparent moving forward, he said.

"Nothing will happen outside of the Open Meetings Act," he said of the new incentive program. "Every decision, every dollar that we get is given through the Michigan Strategic Fund" and legislators will have to approve of any money flowing through the fund.

Whitmer echoed those comments at the Monday event.

"For us to compete, we have to understand what these potential clients or investors or businesses need to be successful — What are they making decisions on? What is their bottom line goal? — so that we can develop a vision and a plan that makes Michigan competitive," Whitmer said.

Staff writer Craig Mauger contributed