Consider This

[Consider This is an e-mail update and analysis put out three times a week by the Common Sense Foundation, a nonpartisan public-policy organization formed in 1994 “to ensure that state government and the political process attend to the interrelated economic, political, social and cultural needs of those who are systematically denied access to power,” according to the group’s Web site. The following selection presents the foundation’s viewpoint on a variety of issues affecting North Carolinians.]

State employees demand rights

The voices calling for collective-bargaining rights for North Carolina’s state employees are getting louder.

Only North Carolina and Virginia prohibit state employees from engaging in any form of collective bargaining. In a state that has one of the lowest unionization rates in the nation, it’s been too easy for state leaders to keep union organizers at bay. But that’s changing as more and more state employees speak out. In December, labor advocates such as the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union organized public events across North Carolina to raise awareness of the unjust limitations placed on the rights of state employees. (Although the union advocates for state employees, it cannot engage in collective bargaining on their behalf.)

Private-sector employees’ right to collective bargaining has been recognized nationally since 1935. And though that law doesn’t cover public employees, most states have authorized some form of collective bargaining by their state workers. But granting these rights isn’t just the right thing to do — it’s also the economical thing to do. Active and effective union representation decreases employee turnover, thereby cutting state training costs substantially and offsetting wage increases that may result from labor contracts.

State employees have been getting the short end of the stick from the General Assembly for years. It’s time to move past the empty gestures of tiny pay increases and grant state employees the full civil rights they deserve.

Gobble, gobble

Another day, another plant closing: Among the latest casualties is the Circle S Foods turkey-processing plant in Duplin County, which closed its doors Dec. 10. Circle S is the seventh-largest private employer in Duplin County, and the impact will be felt far beyond the plant’s 400 workers and their families.

But this fowl failure has left egg on the face of state government too, since the governor’s One North Carolina Fund had approved a giveaway of $600,000 to Circle S Foods in 2003. Fortunately, the check had not yet been written (because the company hadn’t met certain requirements), so the state isn’t actually out the money. The lesson is clear, however: Putting the state in the venture-capital business is a bad idea, especially when other needs are so great and growing. Instead of budgeting a gift of $600,000 to an already-struggling turkey processor, the state could have provided day-care subsidies for 85 3-year-olds, thus allowing their parents to go to work and contribute to the economy.

The One North Carolina Fund is supposed to be dedicated to “expanding quality jobs in high-value-added, knowledge-driven industries.” Leaving aside for the moment the question of how turkey processing qualifies as “knowledge-driven,” one must still question the wisdom and effectiveness of a corporate-welfare fund whose potential beneficiaries can’t even stay in business long enough to cash their fat government checks.

High-tech corporate welfare

The Circle S debacle doesn’t bode well for another, vastly bigger giveaway of taxpayer dollars to a private company just a month before. On Nov. 4, the N.C. General Assembly convened a one-day special session for the sole purpose of bribing the Dell Corporation — to the tune of a quarter of a billion dollars — to build a manufacturing plant in the Triad. The deal was so generous and open-ended that even legislators who voted for the proposal said it made them nervous. Last year it was Merck and R.J. Reynolds; now the stakes are even higher for fewer beneficiaries. This time, only Dell gets the goodies.

It isn’t often that legislators from the majority party call a major bill such as this one “not well thought out” and “bad public policy.” But that conclusion is all too easy to reach when you look at the numbers, which give Dell up to $200,000 per job created over the next 20 years. Thanks to this giveaway, the company could conceivably reduce its state tax liability to nothing. In addition, Dell will operate under special lax rules: Unlike many previous incentives measures, this one contains no wage standard, and Dell is required to shoulder only half the cost of its full-time employees’ health-insurance premiums.

What’s more, the bill provides only weak safeguards to protect the state’s enormous investment. Accountability and reporting provisions are noticeably absent or watered down. Even the bill’s sponsors have admitted that the incentives game is now out of control, yet few state leaders seem to have the courage to stop the merry-go-round and demand some accountability and fiscal responsibility.

There’s ample evidence to suggest that smart businesspeople make relocation decisions based on a number of factors, with tax-and-incentives policy ranking rather far down the list. North Carolina is consistently among the most popular states for new corporate facilities, suggesting that this type of deal is so unnecessary that it does more for the reputation of politicians than for the long-term economic health of the state and its residents.

Admittedly, North Carolina’s economy is hurting. But deals like the mega-donation to Dell will only make things worse in the long run by reducing future tax revenues while providing little or no promise of any real return.

N.C. needs fact-based sex education

With the N.C. teen-pregnancy rate above the national average and the state ranked among the nation’s leaders in syphilis and gonorrhea infection rates, you’d think people would want more comprehensive sex education, so teens can be better prepared to handle their emerging sexuality.

It turns out that people DO want that. Surveys show that an overwhelming majority of North Carolina parents want their children to have comprehensive sex education in school. Yet according to a special report by the Common Sense Foundation, fewer than 10 percent of North Carolina’s school districts use such curricula. Most of the others rely solely on encouraging abstinence, even though there’s no evidence that this approach works.

The report (part of the monthly “Common Sense Says” series) calls for a statewide sex-education curriculum that is factually accurate, scientifically based, and free of political and religious censorship. To access the report online, go to www.common-sense.org/?fnoc=/common_sense_says/css.

[Charlotte native David Mills is executive director of the Common Sense Foundation (www.common-sense.org). A resident of Durham since 1996, he holds an undergraduate degree in religion from Princeton University and a master’s degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York City.]

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