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Brighter light to shine on big-project breaks

PIERRE -- The state Board of Economic Development adopted a change Monday regarding refunds of sales, use and construction-excise taxes for big business projects.

The refund applications that business developers file will remain confidential -- but only until they notify the board in writing they want action.

Then the board will make decisions on those requests, in open session, within 15 to 60 days.

Those final decisions will be in writing. Specific details about each project including all of the state and local assistance will be published on a state Internet site.

"We recognize this is just the start," said Jeff Erickson, of Sioux Falls, the board's chairman and a retired banking executive.

The refunds will be available to projects that cost more than $20 million or have equipment upgrades exceeding $2 million.

Residential housing, transient lodging, health-care facilities, pipelines, retail businesses and buildings that aren't subject to property taxes won't be eligible.

Subjecting the refund applications to a public board is a departure from the policies of the past decade, when an automatic formula was used.

So is publicizing the details for each project including the jobs to be created, as well as a statement about why the project wouldn't have been built otherwise in South Dakota.

For many years, members of the general public, including legislators, were barred by state law from knowing anything about the amounts or recipients of individual refunds.

Later, the law was relaxed somewhat so that the recipients and amounts were revealed after refunds were paid.

That came after a newspaper reporter won an appeal to an administrative hearing officer who ruled the names of the refund permit holders weren't confidential under the ban.

The new process erases much of the secrecy of the old approach. Now the decisions will be made in meetings open to the public.

The changes come as part of new operating rules adopted by the state board Monday for the Building South Dakota programs created earlier this year by the Legislature.

The next and possibly final stop for the proposed regulations is the Legislature's rules review committee. That panel of three senators and three representatives next meets May 20 and June 4.