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Minnesota's bid for Amazon HQ is none of Minnesotans' business

According to this image of the original Amazon HQ in Washington, Minnesota should've offered big globe-looking things.

According to this image of the original Amazon HQ in Washington, Minnesota should've offered big globe-looking things. Associated Press

Like many people reading this, the State of Minnesota recently tried to get something from Amazon.

The order was a big one: A $5 billion, 50,000-employee headquarters, Amazon's second, to help make Minnesota the cream of the tech development crop.

Back in September, Amazon announced it was looking to site a sister HQ to its Seattle home. State and local governments across America swooned, each outdoing the last in offering the right suite of economic incentives to lure Amazon its direction. California floated upwards of $1 billion; New Jersey put up $7 billion; an Atlanta suburb offered to create a new town called "Amazon" and make Amazon's Jeff Bezos its mayor for life.

Minnesota's bid was said to be more modest than all these. An Associated Press report from October had Gov. Mark Dayton eschewing "gimmicks and gadgetry" in favor of old-fashioned bragging. As Dayton's economic development commissioner Shawntera Hardy put it, Minnesota has "a talented and diverse workforce, robust public and private education system, strong transportation systems, and excellent overall quality of life."

It's also got money, but under the current Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) budget, the most the state could offer in direct support to Amazon was $3 million -- a paltry sum compared to the others on the table.

So what exactly did Minnesota offer instead? We still don't know. We might never.

In October, DEED did not "immediately respond" to the AP's public records request for the bid. Now we know why: Those records aren't public, DEED claims, because it outsourced the bid to Greater MSP, a Twin Cities regional economic development organization. This private approach to a public matter was revealed by Public Records Media (PRM), which earlier this week detailed its months-long struggle to find out what Minnesota promised Amazon.

A spokesman for DEED says Greater MSP "took on the task of compiling Minnesota's response and submitting it to Amazon." But not to the state of Minnesota: The same spokesman says the state government has "only two documents" that are part of the bid; the rest is a private affair between Amazon and Greater MSP.

And they're not in a sharing mood, either. Greater MSP wouldn't give out documents or details because it entered a non-disclosure agreement with Amazon. How convenient.

Minnesota's state government sure seems to trust Greater MSP. Should you?

Organized as a 501(c)3, Greater MSP is a public-private hybrid. The $6 million budget Greater MSP reported on its 2016 tax filing, the most recent available, show $530,000 of that went to CEO Michael Langley, and five other staffers also drew six-figure salaries. (The nonprofit employs 21 people total, according to a recent Star Tribune report.) That was actually a pay cut for Langley, whose total 2015 compensation package was north of $800,000.

At least some of that's being paid for with taxpayer funds: Minneapolis, St. Paul, Hennepin County, and Dakota County have each pitched in with annual contributions of $100,000-plus, while Anoka County chipped in with $75,000. These public pay-ins account for about a fifth of Greater MSP's annual budget.

Greater MSP's leadership is a who's who of large local corporations: Richard Davis and Tim Welsh, both higher-ups at US Bank, currently serve as Greater MSP's co-chairs, and its list of "directors" includes big shots from Wells Fargo, the Minnesota Vikings, General Mills, Xcel Energy, Land O'Lakes, and Ecolab.

But also among Greater MSP's directors are Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, plus members of county boards throughout the Twin Cities metro area, and University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler.

Do any of those people, all of them elected, appointed, or hired in a public capacity, know what Minnesota just offered Jeff Bezos and Amazon? Would they care to share? Or is this the sort of information we only entrust to bankers?

Public Records Media's report has exactly one quoted statement that makes any sense, and it's from Don Gemberling of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information: "What you're getting, it seems to me, is a whole bunch of hokum."

And maybe, if we're lucky, a new Fortune 500 overlord.