02/16/05 — Secret deals: Business group practical but unwise on this matter

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Secret deals: Business group practical but unwise on this matter

North Carolina’s newspapers and its chamber of commerce usually get along quite well together. The common concerns they share are innumerable.

The chamber of commerce — or, rather, the organization officially called North Carolina Citizens for Business and Industry — seeks to improve the economy, encourage efficiency in government, promote sound public education, and so on.

All of these are worthwhile causes that most newspapers share.

Occasionally, though, the papers butt heads with the business group, and this is one of those occasions.

The North Carolina Press Association is trying to get the Legislature to remove some of the secrecy surrounding the deals that governments give prospective industries to get them to locate in the state.

NCCBI wants to keep the blinds drawn. It says the state would be at a competitive disadvantage if it had to negotiate openly when seeking to recruit or retain industry.

“It is vital,” says the business group, “that businesses receiving services from the state know that when they share confidential, proprietary information with state and local officials, that the information will be protected and not subject to disclosure to competitors or the general public.

“Likewise, it is vital that the discussions and negotiations that state and local officials have with industry concerning government assistance or incentives necessary for locations or expansions be protected from disclosure given the adverse impact such disclosure could have on the state’s competitive position and its reputation as a fair and predictable jurisdiction in which to do business.”

On the other hand, the newspaper organization notes that some other states, notably Ohio, negotiate incentives openly. These states have not been hurt by allowing the taxpayers to know how other taxpayers will be treated. Nor would North Carolina be hurt by openness.

The press association notes that in the last 14 months alone, the state “secretly negotiated and awarded nearly one billion dollars in tax breaks for the recruitment of Boeing, Merck and Dell projects.”

And it notes that access to deals involving the government and the spending of tax money is the cornerstone of all open government.

The Citizens for Business and Industry is a fine group, vital to North Carolina’s growth and progress, but in this case it is wrong.

There are fundamental problems with a government treating one business more favorably than it treats others. If that is to be done, it certainly should not be done in secret.

No industry recruiting is more important than preserving the foundations of our democratic system.

Published in Editorials on February 16, 2005 10:39 AM