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NC Budget and Tax Center

Sharon DeckerThe unfortunate quest to privatize the state’s business recruitment and job creation efforts took a big step forward yesterday, when the Senate agreed to a House proposal creating a new nonprofit partnership to oversee much of the state’s economic development efforts.

This misguided proposal is a bad deal for North Carolina taxpayers, businesses, and workers—schemes for privatizing economic development have repeatedly proven to be ineffective at job creation, wasteful of taxpayer dollars, and prone to financial mismanagement, conflicts of interest and pay-to-play incentive granting, and the inability to raise private funds in many of the states where they’ve been tried.

The only good news is that the General Assembly finally ended up supporting the House-passed measure, which includes somewhat better taxpayer protections than the original Senate measure.

Perhaps most importantly, the House bill did not include a new incentive program for the film industry, an extra policy tacked onto the Senate version two weeks ago. Given ongoing controversy over the effectiveness of film incentives, the Commerce privatization bill was just not the appropriate place for creating an entirely new incentive program.

A second important improvement over the original Senate measure involves the inclusion of new ethics rules. While the Senate suggested allowing the new nonprofit to develop and implement its own code of ethics—potentially creating legal loopholes for problematic ethical behavior—the final House bill requires that all board members, officers, and staff members remain subject to the existing state ethics act, just like all other state appointees and employees. This will protect taxpayers from the kinds of ethics scandals that have plagued other states’ privatization efforts, as in Wisconsin, Florida, and Texas.

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NC Budget and Tax Center

North Carolina’s economic development efforts took a turn for the worse last night, when the Senate passed a bill that privatizes the state’s business recruitment, retention, and development activities. A similar proposal will likely pass the House today, and while the lower chamber’s privatization plan is marginally better than the Senate’s scheme, both leave a lot to be desired in terms of ensuring more effective job creation and protecting taxpayer dollars.

Privatizing job creation efforts is hardly a new idea, although it’s proven to generate more scandals than results in the sixteen states that have experimented with this approach. According to the General Assembly’s own Fiscal Research Division, the kinds of economic development public private partnerships envisioned in the House and Senate bills haven’t proven themselves any more effective at boosting job creation in the states that adopted them than in those states that simply kept their job recruiting efforts inside agencies of state government.   At the same time, FRD and other researchers have found that these privatization schemes have been marked by financial mismanagement (Wisconsin), conflicts of interest and pay-to-play incentive-granting (Texas and Florida), and the inability to raise private funds, leaving taxpayers on the hook (Missouri).

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Update: Both the Senate and House passed versions of the bill Thursday on second readings, with the House tacking on language placing the economic development partnership back under state ethic rules. The proposals will be back next week for final passage in each chamber.

Parallel bills to privatize pieces of the state’s economic development work is on the path to approval at the state legislature, with changes emerging Tuesday that lower the private fundraising requirements and restrict some of the transparency measures.

The Senate is supposed to consider the bill on the floor today.

N.C. Commerce Sec. Sharon Decker

N.C. Commerce Sec. Sharon Decker

The most reason versions of the 19-page House Bill 1031 and Senate bill 743 would also reduce the required amount the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina must raise from private funders, leaving the group to raise $6 million from private funders over the next five years.

(To read the entire bill, click here.)

Taxpayers are expected to contribute $90 million over that same period. That’s if Gov. Pat McCrory’s request to transfer 67 positions and an estimated $18 million next year to the new group from the Commerce Department is endorsed by lawmakers in budget negotiations.

Draft legislation had initially put the group on the hook to raise $10 million from private sources immediately, but the language endorsed by House and Senate committees will lower that to $6 million over five years, a move that Republican sponsors is more realistic for a startup group.

The privatization proposal would set North Carolina on a path of its economic development that a dozen other states have embarked on, with mixed results. The public-private partnerships, sometimes referred to as PPPs, have come under fierce criticism in other states with accusations that the private setups have wasted taxpayer money, exaggerated job claims and been used to reward political campaign donors and supporters.

The current form of the bills also remove provisions putting members of the nonprofit’s board and top employees under state ethics rules, which require an annual public disclosure of financial interests as well as put in varied prohibitions on accepting gifts and performing favors. The ethics law also attaches criminal penalties for accepting money or gifts from those looking to s curry favor from public servants. (Click here for a background story). Read More