Crossing a moral line in NC with ‘business friendly’ regulations

Gov. Pat McCrory recently signed a law loosening some environmental regulations.
Gov. Pat McCrory recently signed a law loosening some environmental regulations. tlong@newsobserver.com

‘Business friendly” spoken with a North Carolina accent has changed meaning. For a while, we whispered “cheap land, cheap labor and non-union” and attracted exactly what that bait would draw as farming faded as an employer. We still live with that precedent of devaluing some of our land and a lot of our people. Those North Carolina working people paid the real price of industrial recruitment because they were the bait. To be sure, they got jobs, but the cost to them was paid in diminished lives

Cheap is still an attraction, but our more visible bait became a “simplified” permit process, help in site selection, job training, a road or two and necessary utilities. Inducements became more about money on top of government goods and services in the form of tax credits or direct payments offered by states and weighed by industrial suitors.

Because these incentives came from everyone’s tax dollars, there was always a tension between attracting a business and costing too much. Mostly, we avoided winning at any price and have recognized the limits of public license.

But we have thrown a whole new currency onto the table: the relaxed regulation of business and its consequences to health.

There is pressure on leaders to stay in the game of locating industry here. This General Assembly, which seems to have acquired remote control of the current governor, has sponsored a return to our original sin of shifting the cost of attracting industry away from the taxpayer and directly upon the lives of North Carolina’s working people. By quietly but clearly taxing the wallets, future and health of those most in need of jobs, the legislature has foisted upon our neighbors genuine compromises to their health and well-being.

Our governor signed a bill that makes the pollution of our air, water and land far more likely. This is more than one ulcerated fish trying to swim upside down. It is a people and children thing. The folks who work at the plant or live near it pay the first costs of attracting industry by unknowing sacrifice to their health in greater incidence of exposure-related illness and developmental damage to children. Eventually by proximity and shared resources, we all pay a price in the loss of our collective health. Our leaders have contributed only the cold hearts and blind eyes that baiting industry with our most vulnerable citizens requires.

Perhaps they are emboldened to take this path by having already gotten away with decimating benefits to those laid off from work, capping worker protections and clamping down on help to those injured on the job. It is a cruel moment that our governor chose to sign a bill making exposure-related family illnesses a greater probability while refusing to support better access to health care for hundreds of thousands of residents without insurance.

The desperate and vulnerable need whistleblowers, worker protections, consumer protections and access to strong public schools that allow upward mobility. Each of these safeguards has weakened under the current leadership.

Pouring public money into private businesses excites a good debate, but pouring citizens’ lives and health into incentive packages should be beyond consideration. A moral line has been crossed when our government leaders seem to believe that “business friendly” includes the knowing sacrifice of the water we drink, the air we breathe and the health and safety of working families.

“Business friendly” now includes not just money, but the quiet sacrifice of pieces of other North Carolina lives, hopes, health and future.

Harry Payne is the interim director of Toxic Free NC.