People - March 2005

Ex-judge wants state to break with incentives
By Edward Martin

Bob Orr laughed recently when he found a cat collar with a bell in his office. It was a gag gift from a group he had addressed. In his speech, he recited the fable about a colony of mice that cheered when one suggested they bell their nemesis to keep the feline from sneaking up on them. But when the call went out for a volunteer, they scurried back in their holes.

Orr’s cat is economic incentives, baiting businesses with cash, tax breaks and other inducements. North Carolina recently agreed to give nearly $243 million to Round Rock, Texas-based Dell to get it to build a $100 million computer-assembly plant in the Triad. Winston-Salem and Forsyth County chipped in an additional $37.2 million.

Corporations are able to play states and localities against one another to receive extraordinarily large sums of money, says Orr, executive director of the Raleigh-based North Carolina Institute for Constitutional Law. “Where does it stop?”

He hopes the answer will start with the institute he heads. Started in 2003 by a group that includes Art Pope, a former Republican state representative and president of Raleigh-based discount-store chain Variety Wholesalers, its agenda includes campaign-finance reform and other issues.

Orr, 58, has the easy affability of a career politician, which isn’t surprising since he’s a veteran of four statewide races. A lawyer — UNC Chapel Hill law school, class of 1975 — he seemed positioned to end his career as a justice on the N.C. Supreme Court, where he had served since 1995. Before that, he spent 8 1/2 years on the state Court of Appeals.

Then, a year ago, he retired barely a year into his second term. The decision wasn’t as sudden as it seemed. He had watched as judicial races became more rancorous. He had lost heart in the judiciary, but he had found a cause — incentives.

A Norfolk, Va., native, he grew up in Hendersonville. After law school, he practiced in Asheville before edging into politics in 1981 as an aide there to former U.S. Rep. Bill Hendon, a Republican. Gov. Jim Martin appointed him to the Court of Appeals in 1986. He was re-elected twice, then won eight-year Supreme Court terms in 1994 and 2002.

Orr has strong feelings about incentives, having opposed a ruling in 1996 that may have opened the door to Dell-like deals. Winston-Salem lawyer Bill Maready argued that incentives violated the public-purpose principle of the state constitution. Maready eventually lost — the state high court voted 5-2 to uphold incentives. Orr dissented. But the lawsuit temporarily halted them, and Orr was fired up.

He believes the Dell deal might provide the spark needed to ignite another assault on incentives. A federal court, he notes, ruled in September that an Ohio package to attract a DaimlerChrysler Jeep plant — similar to those offered Tar Heel prospects — violated the U.S. Constitution’s interstate-commerce clause. While the institute isn’t likely to sue, he says it probably will seek out and support a business owner willing to challenge the state.

Success, he says, would unshackle elected officials who privately say they oppose incentives but are afraid they’ll be accused of costing jobs if they oppose them publicly. That, he says, would make them less reluctant to bell the cat.