Critics question state's urgency on incentives

In September, the legislature convened a special session for an urgent purpose: to help tire makers.

Lawmakers approved a measure that would split as much as $60 million between Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. and Bridgestone Firestone. The move was necessary, supporters said, to protect almost 5,000 jobs in the state.

Nine months later, nothing has happened and some critics question why there was such a rush to get the legislation approved in the first place.

“I'm not sure what the urgency was,” said Jeanette Doran, senior staff attorney with the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law. “I did not at the time understand the urgency, and I still don't.”

The Raleigh-based group has fought several incentives awards in North Carolina and has sued to block the assistance earmarked for the tire manufacturers.

Lawmakers acted out of concern that two large employers in two poor counties – Goodyear in Cumberland County, Bridgestone Firestone in Wilson County – would leave. By approving tax breaks, they aimed to offset costs of upgrading factories with new technology so the companies would stay in North Carolina.

In two days during the special session, legislators boosted the potential value of the incentives by $20 million. They also included provisions that allowed the companies to cut their payrolls and still get assistance.

Technically, the tire manufacturers must apply to receive the assistance. A committee at the N.C. Department of Commerce determines eligibility and makes the awards. It is scheduled to meet today on the matter, but action is not likely.

Bridgestone Firestone submitted its application about two weeks ago, said Jim Pridgen, who manages the Wilson plant where 2,179 people work.

He expects to hear from the Commerce Department by next week on where the application stands.

“It's moving forward, and it sounds like it's getting very, very close,” he said.

Dan MacDonald, a company spokesman said: “Though the process may grind slowly, it doesn't necessarily mean that it's not an important and critical component of our global competitiveness.”

Deborah Barnes, a spokeswoman for the Commerce Department, declined to comment on the process.

And Ed Markey, a spokesman for Goodyear, did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand, a Cumberland County Democrat who helped shepherd the legislation, said Goodyear has also been working with the Commerce Department and is “making sure all the i's are dotted and the t's crossed.”