Job recruitment tangled up with fracking

August 5, 2013 

One significant but generally overlooked aspect of the recent legislative session was something that didn’t happen. Gov. Pat McCrory’s plan to spur jobs by creating a nonprofit corporation for recruiting and retaining businesses didn’t get through the General Assembly.

The corporation would have brought the private and public sectors together in what had been billed as a “partnership for prosperity.” The corporation was to be part of a reorganization of the Commerce Department that also would bring state and regional job creation efforts under the department’s control.

The plan seemed a fait accompli given the Republican governor’s investment in it and his party’s supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature. Even Democrats didn’t have particularly strong objections, though some worried about provisions that could have private interests using taxpayer-supported incentives to lure businesses.

So what happened to the “partnership” – not to mention the “prosperity”? The plan got delayed by becoming entwined with fracking. Someone got the idea that the way to back the new partnership was to give it a pile of money from taxes on fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, the process of extracting natural gas deposits by pumping fluid into the ground at high pressure.

State Sen. Harry Brown, a Jacksonville Republican and the Senate majority leader, sponsored a bill to make the changes at the Commerce Department. He said the legislation was set aside in the hectic last days of the session because details on regulating fracking are still being worked out. The delay, however, did not stop Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker from telling an audience last week that she’s eager to see fracking boom in North Carolina. She said it would give the state an energy industry it could tap to support business recruitment, just like Texas does.

Now the fate of the plan has moved from curious to worrisome. The governor took office on a pledge that he would bring a business-based approach to selling and running North Carolina. He would improve the state’s appeal to businesses by bettering its “brand,” and he would insist that state agencies deliver better “customer service.”

How does that approach square with a plan to address the state’s greatest need – jobs – by tying the effort to an industry that doesn’t exist? Fracking may yield a major new revenue stream, or with natural gas prices low and the size of the resource here uncertain, fracking may get off to a sputtering start and never develop. With so many in need of work, the governor is offering a plan that has turned out to be first, delayed, and second, speculative.

Meanwhile, the General Assembly and the governor are busy consolidating job-development efforts like the Rural Economic Development Center under the Commerce Department even as the state auditor has raised questions about the department’s handling of a job recruitment program it already runs.

For the state’s unemployed – indeed, for all who want North Carolina’s economy to grow – it’s hard to see how these slow and fanciful efforts will create jobs now or later. The governor and Republican lawmakers ought to give up on a vision of winning the fracking lottery and buying vast numbers of jobs. Instead, they should use the tools and resources already in hand and get to work putting people to work.

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