By Allan M. Freyer
Director, Workers’ Rights Project
If North Carolina continues to use incentives to pick winners and losers in economic development, the state needs to do a much better job of picking winners. More than half of all firms receiving incentive awards from the state’s Job Development Investment Grant (JDIG) program since its inception in 2002 have failed to live up to their promises of job creation, investment, or wages. These failed projects have forced the Department of Commerce to cancel those grants and even occasionally take back funds already given to these underperforming firms, according to an analysis of program reports.
Given the troubling number of failed projects, now is not the time to accept recent proposals to expand JDIG and create a new “catalyst fund” for closing new incentive deals. All told, the state has cancelled 60 percent of JDIG projects after recipient firms failed to honor their promises, with even higher rates of failed projects in the rural and most economically distressed areas of state. The disparity in performance between projects in urban and rural counties is even more striking in light of the signifi cantly lower incentive investments made in those rural areas—rural counties are seeing more project failure despite having fewer and smaller investments.
To address these problems, legislators should resist adding to the state’s incentive programs and instead focus on strengthening the performance standards that hold recipient fi rms accountable for the promises they make. Without these critical accountability measures, each one of these unsuccessful projects would have continued to receive millions in public subsidies, despite failing to create promised jobs and investment. Additionally, policy makers should improve the evaluation process for prospective JDIG projects. Currently, the cost-benefit analysis every project must undergo is clearly letting too many bad projects slip through the cracks. Future incentive grants should go to firms in targeted industries that are poised for robust growth rather than those that are in decline, and grants should be designed to bring infrastructure development and job training resources to the rural counties that most need assistance. Lastly, there is no need to create a new “closing” fund because there is already a similarly designed incentive program that governors have traditionally used to help close projects—namely, the OneNC program.