Greensboro News & Record

February 15, 1996

Incentives suit has broad public madate

Copyright © 1996, Greensboro News & Record

Personal attacks on the lawyer, Bill Maready, suggest the intellectual bankruptcy of the other side.

It's time to wish godspeed to William Maready, who will argue before the North Carolina Supreme Court tomorrow that industrial recruitment incentives violate the North Carolina constitution.

You would expect that this high-minded debate would stick to matters of principle and avoid personalities. Maready, after all, is only the conveyer of an idea, not the idea itself. Yet defenders of the incentives rat race have increasingly attacked the man and his motives, presumably because they know in their heart of hearts that his reasoning is irrefutable.

The Winston-Salem lawyer sued Winston-Salem and Forsyth County because that's where he pays his taxes and he believes financial incentives are a misuse of public funds. The principle he advances applies statewide, however, and the personal attacks have come from all over. And so it becomes necessary to defend the man as well as what he represents.

Maready will argue on Friday that cash incentives paid by cities, counties and the state to companies as a way of enticing them to come to North Carolina run afoul of the constitution's explicit stipulation that tax revenues may only be used for a public purpose. The practice is also immoral, he maintains, because it arbitrarily takes funds from everyone for the benefit of the few.

His case is supported by experience as well as a logical reading of the language of the constitution. After the bidding for a Mercedes-Benz assembly plant reached the hundreds of millions a few years ago, it became clear that things had gotten out of hand. State industry hunters had become so convinced of the necessity of cash and other incentives that they had lost all perspective.

The competition shows no real sign of slowing down. Even now, North Carolina industrial recruiters are eager to put together an incentives plan for a plant that Volvo is thinking about building somewhere in the Southeast. But money that might be given to Volvo would be better spent on such basics as transportation and education. North Carolina is not starved for new industry. Even with a comparatively modest recruitment program, the state remains among the most successful in the country at attracting new investments and jobs.

That's the practical part of the point Maready is trying to make. Yet, his detractors not only attack him for his views, they impugn his motives. Maready has been accused of pursuing a vendetta against the city of Winston-Salem, which recently annexed his property, of spoiling for a fight with his former law partners and of taking up the incentives battle for reason of ego and to keep his name in the spotlight. All of this misses the point by a country mile.

Even Commerce Secretary Dave Phillips has seen fit, disappointingly, to personalize the debate. ''One person,'' he has said, ''has really spooked business from coming to North Carolina. '' That's an egregious overstatement on two counts. First, Maready is far from alone in opposing incentives. He represents the viewpoint of many people from across the political spectrum - probably a wide majority - who believe that economic development recruitment has gone overboard. And second, new business just keeps coming.

Maready cites the 1993 statewide referendum on a constitutional amendment to expand the power of localities to spend tax revenues on economic development. The verdict of the people was resounding: 651,190 to 176,762 against the measure. Clearly, though Phillips and fellow industry hunters may argue the competitive importance of keeping up with the Joneses, they have nothing resembling a popular mandate.

Bill Maready is not the issue. He is merely an advocate widely respected for his skill and tenacity in the courtroom. His clients are the North Carolina constitution and the people who pay the taxes in this state. Reason and the law are on their side.

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Copyright ©1996, Greensboro News & Record.

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