Tennessee Won’t Disclose Which Businesses Got Virus Relief

Tennessee has given more than $170 million in federal relief funds to businesses struggling to survive during the coronavirus pandemic, but top state officials aren’t saying exactly who is getting the money.

“This is considered confidential taxpayer information,” state Department of Revenue spokeswoman Kelly Cortesi wrote in an email to The Associated Press in response to a request to review the list of businesses that had received government checks since the program launched in early June. Payments for eligible businesses range from $2,500 to $30,000, depending on gross sales.

Cortesi cited a Tennessee statute that says the revenue department can’t disclose information about individual taxpayers.

Earlier this year, Republican Gov. Bill Lee and other top state officials said about 28,000 Tennessee businesses would qualify for the program at the time it rolled out, claiming that the majority would likely be small businesses.

The program was funded by federal coronavirus relief funds to assist companies that had been hard hit by the pandemic. Since then, the program has been expanded to include 60 different types of businesses that could access the money.

“We’ll continue to distribute federal resources prudently to address the pressing needs of Tennessee businesses to get our economy back on track,” Lee promised in August.

Under the program, individual businesses don’t have to apply for the money. Instead the state uses information available in its tax system to identify them and notifies them via letter or email. To get the funds, businesses must certify their information with the revenue department.

Because of the privacy statute cited by the state, there is no way for the public to determine how much assistance small businesses actually received. Neither is it possible to determine how many wealthy, well-connected companies benefited from the program.

According to the revenue agency, approximately 23,000 businesses have received some sort of payment as of Sept. 18. The deadline to receive payments is Tuesday. The original deadline of Sept. 25 was extended to allow more businesses to apply for the money.

Rather than publicizing company names, the state has released a breakdown of payments by county that only provides vague descriptions of the type of businesses that received the funds, such as “tire dealers,” “hotels,” and “all other personal services.”

Businesses in Davidson County, which encompasses Nashville, have received the most of the state’s 95 counties: more than $30 million. Those in Shelby County received $21.4 million; Knox County, $14.8 million; Hamilton County, $10.2 million; and Sevier County, $9.5 million.

The majority of the relief funding in these counties has gone to hotels, restaurants, beauty salons and bars. Yet in Shelby County, which includes Memphis, $1.7 million went to “gasoline stations with convenient stores”- more than the $1.4 million that has gone to hotels. In Davidson County, nearly $1.3 million has gone to “musical groups and artists.”

Meanwhile, other states have varied in their willingness to publicly release which businesses have received the federal coronavirus relief funds. In New Hampshire, officials not only disclose which businesses receive the money, they also reveal how much each received.

At the federal level, the Treasury Department in June released the names and some other details of recipients who were approved for $150,000 or more under the Payroll Protection Program.

While the government identified nearly 650,000 mostly small businesses and nonprofits that received assistance, a public release of some of the data showed that companies owned by celebrities and politicians, as well as private equity firms and large franchises, benefited from the program.