NC's partnership for job growth should be reconsidered

February 23, 2014 

Gov. Pat McCrory came into office talking about broken government, and yet the people who work for him seem to be the ones busting up the china shop. The plan to restructure the Commerce Department is just the latest example.

The much-ballyhooed economic development plan that creates a public-private partnership – a GOP mantra – is utterly stymied by confusion, inaction and lack of understanding.

When Commerce officials speak of their Economic Development Partnership, this public-private nonprofit agency that will recruit jobs and business, they don’t seem to have a clue as to how it will be funded or work.

The idea behind the breathless push for this agency was that the economic development arm of the Commerce Department wasn’t doing a good job and could be improved. After all, the state’s jobless rate has remained too high, and new jobs have been hard to find.

Of course, economic development nationwide wasn’t exactly thriving in the years of the Great Recession, but Republicans now in charge of state government would like to blame the sluggish economy on the long rule of Democrats.

So this new agency, with private dollars coming in, is to set about finding lots of jobs and bringing them to North Carolina. A businessman, Richard Lindenmuth, was hired the first week of January to be the agency’s interim director.

That’s where things stand, and that’s where they have stood.

Now Commerce officials are asking for a stream of public money, in addition to an annual budget appropriation, to help pay for the new agency. N.C. Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker says she thinks the partnership should have its first budget set before asking for private donations.

“I think it’s not appropriate to raise private funds until we know what we’re asking for,” she said at a legislative committee meeting.

What happened to the private part of this revolutionary partnership? And officials don’t yet know what they’ll need from the private part of this partnership? Things already seem lopsided and leaning toward a handout to businesses.

State Rep. Susi Hamilton of Wilmington, a Democrat, zeroed in on private fundraising when she questioned Decker and Lindenmuth at the committee meeting. She said, “My queston is: Where’s the private money and why aren’t we talking more about fundraising (from the private sector) while we’re also talking about bringing public money to the table?”

Hamilton also made a good point when she said that without a lot of private money, the partnership would just be a way for public money to be spent without much oversight. That has been the case in other states where public and private money has been stirred together without much public disclosure.

And troubling also is the fact that Commerce and partnership officials don’t seem sure of where the private money will come from or how much there will be. Legislative staffers have warned officials that these sorts of partnerships in one form or another haven’t raised much private money elsewhere.

“It’s not a public-private partnership if only the public is contributing money and resources,” Hamilton said.

North Carolina may be experiencing a slow recovery from the recession, but its vibrant tourism industry and its high rankings in virtually all business publications as a great place to do business testify that its economic development potential remains strong.

Decker needs to review this stumbling – and still legislatively unapproved – idea. Despite rhetoric from the governor about broken government, Commerce may not need to be reassembled. It may be time to abandon a bad idea before its practical application, if that ever happens, makes a mess of things.

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