Editorial: N.C. gets 'Googled'

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 6, 2007

When people “Google” something, it usually means they’re looking up information on the Internet search engine of the same name. After recent disclosures about Google’s machinations to locate a computer center in Caldwell County, however, a new definition is in order.

If you’re “Googled” in North Carolina, it could mean you’ve been browbeaten, intimidated and micromanaged by a corporate leviathan that wants to write its own ticket in securing a megabyte tax break. Like many corporations (including Toyota), Google wanted absolute confidentiality during negotations and asked state officials to sign nondisclosure agreements. At one point, in pressing for legislation written to Google’s precise needs, company executive Rhett Weiss warned that unless the lawyerly language had the “correct substance,” the project would be aborted. He complained about the legislative aide writing the bill and asked Commerce Secretary Jim Fain to “prevail upon” him.

What was at stake for Caldwell was a $600 million project that could create 200 jobs for a foothills region with a sputtering economy. What was at stake for Google was about $100 million in tax breaks spread over 30 years. What’s also at stake, although perhaps not as readily recognized, is trust that elected officials are working for the citizenry, not for a deep-pocketed corporate interest that is all too happy to write its own rules, take a subsidy from taxpayers and expect thanks for doing so.

It’s an astounding example of corporate hubris. Before spinning the outrage meter over to high, however, a reality check is in order. This is how special-interest laws and regulations are often written. In this case, it’s a high-tech behemoth pulling the strings. But in years past, it might have been the hog industry trying to fend off tougher regulations. Or the banking industry angling for a tax break on corporate income. Or a telecommunications firm twisting arms to limit its competition. Or the tourism and real-estate industries pushing to get the school calendar changed.

Most of the time, the hard-ball stuff stays behind the scenes. In this case, thanks in part to Google’s hefty incentives package, the public got a peek past the curtain. Even when incentives aren’t involved to this degree, money and lobbyists are a powerful part of the regulatory mix. In the past four years, for example, PAC donations to legislative races have almost doubled, rising to $5.1 million in the 2006 election cycle from $2.8 million in 2002. The major donors represent Realtors, colleges, the medical profession, home builders, trial lawyers, energy companies, banks and insurers. The lobbyists who donate the cash are also standing by to contribute their expertise when it’s time to draft — or block — legislation. They and many legislators may argue their expertise is essential in crafting complex laws, but whose interests do you think will come first?

As outrageous as Google’s overreaching may be, it will serve a useful purpose if it raises public awareness of how corporate clout can be abused, especially when competing to attract new businesses. North Carolina needs the jobs and economic vitality that the high-tech sector can create. But not at the cost of being so blatantly Googled.