When he took over as chair of North Carolina’s new Economic Development Partnership last year, Charlotte Republican John Lassiter knew he’d face stiff competition from other states.
He didn’t expect to face resistance from lawmakers in his own party.
But now, less than a year after his public-private partnership opened its doors, it’s looking at budget cuts at the hands of legislative Republicans.
And its main economic development tool – Jobs Development Investment Grants, or JDIG – is in limbo after being stuck in a controversial bill that’s divided House and Senate lawmakers.
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“It’s frustrating,” says Lassiter, a former Charlotte City Council member and owner of Carolina Legal Staffing, “because I know that, given the chance to do our job with all the tools that we’re supposed to have, our ability to … create opportunities for new jobs and capital investment would be significantly increased across the state in both rural and urban areas.”
The partnership was an initiative of Gov. Pat McCrory, who sees it as a way to respond more quickly to economic development opportunities. Since starting last October, partnership officials have said they’ve recruited 87 new projects, with more than 13,000 jobs and $2.4 billion in investment.
The partnership has an annual budget of about $18 million. The Senate budget would give it about $16 million a year, the N.C. Insider reported this week. The House budget would provide about $17.2 million.
That all affects the partnership’s staff of around 50 and how it’s able to work. But the JDIG grants are its biggest recruitment tool, a carrot to wave at companies weighing North Carolina against other states.
And the grants are part of House Bill 117. That’s the bill to which the Senate added its controversial plan to redistribute sales tax revenues from big counties to small. Supporters call that a way to bring desperately needed help to small, rural counties.
From the beginning, Lassiter has said that would be one of the goals of the economic development partnership. “We cannot lose track of what’s important in the lion’s share of our geography of the state,” he told a Charlotte business group in 2013.
Rural lawmakers complain that most JDIG grants have gone to metropolitan counties such as Mecklenburg, Durham and Wake. But Lassiter says the partnership would use incentives to benefit all areas of the state.
“If we’re able to do our job, it results in new jobs coming to rural and urban areas across North Carolina,” he says. “The longer we delay, there are fewer opportunities …
“The way we could dramatically change lives in rural communities is get more capital investment and more tax base (in those areas).”
Lassiter says one reason the General Assembly formed the public-private partnership in the first place was to take the politics out of economic development.
“Ironically,” he says, “it’s been more politicized.”