Vigilance critical on job incentives

Chances are good that the next automaker to come along dangling plans for a new factory will get a wallet-popping incentives offer from North Carolina.

Will there be enough high-quality jobs and investment to justify that outlay? That remains to be seen – and N.C. lawmakers need to make sure they’re watching. Closely.

Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker held four days of meetings in Tokyo in September, pitching automakers in hopes of landing North Carolina’s answer to the sprawling BMW factory that powers the economy of South Carolina’s Upstate.

North Carolina has sites ready. The economy is recovering, and analysts predict at least two new plants for North America in the coming years.

Competition will be beyond fierce. Crafting our offer will be the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, the untested new public-private outfit that in October assumed the state Commerce Department’s job-recruiting and marketing responsibilities.

Who oversees the partnership? An equally untested 17-member board of business leaders, led by former Charlotte City Council member John Lassiter.

The empaneling of the board, which holds its first meeting Friday in Cary, essentially completes Gov. Pat McCrory’s overhaul of the state’s economic development apparatus. It’s supposed to yield a more aggressive, business-like approach.

But taxpayers, and skeptics in the General Assembly, have good reason for concern.

Transparency has frequently been lacking with such agencies. North Carolina officials have said that won’t be the case here, but Lassiter initially balked when asked to identify the partnership’s donors. He at first said that information would be released with the group’s federal tax forms and to the General Assembly when required.

That was the wrong answer, especially considering that partnerships in other states have had problems with excessive executive pay, conflicts of interest and a lack of public accountability.

The partnership has since identified its corporate donors. Among them: Duke Energy ($200,000) and Piedmont Natural Gas ($75,000).

Having swung and missed recently on relocation projects including Boeing and Toyota, and with a potentially tough reelection campaign ahead, the McCrory administration is clearly hungry for a big “win” on jobs.

(S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley couldn’t have helped the mood this summer with her victory lap through Chester and York counties, where she announced at least 3,900 new jobs for her state – including a couple thousand from defecting Charlotte companies).

In fashioning the new economic development regime, N.C. lawmakers created a standards and accountability committee to make sure tax dollars are spent wisely. That seven-member panel includes four of the governor’s cabinet secretaries and three members appointed by legislative leaders.

More members from outside the administration might have been nice. Let’s hope the panel, empowered to audit the partnership’s work, lives up to its name.