RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The public financial incentives given to computer manufacturer Dell Inc. to build a plant in Winston-Salem are legal, the state Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday, rejecting the arguments of a Republican candidate for governor who sued on behalf of taxpayers.
Former state Supreme Court Justice Robert Orr argued the state and local incentives, which could exceed $300 million, are unconstitutional because they primarily benefit Dell, rather than a general public purpose.
The three-judge panel disagreed, finding that the incentives ''promote the general economic welfare of the communities involved'' and, therefore, are constitutional under a 1996 decision of the state Supreme Court.
The ruling further solidifies North Carolina's practice of offering incentives, often in the form of cash grants, that business boosters insist they need to attract new jobs to the state.
''To the extent plaintiffs question the wisdom of the incentives and whether they will in fact provide the public benefit promised, they have sought relief in the wrong forum,'' Judge Martha Geer wrote in the unanimous opinion, also signed by Judges James Wynn and Rick Elmore.
After the 1996 ruling, Geer added, ''it became the role of the General Assembly and the executive branch — and not the courts — to determine whether such incentives are sound public policy.''
The case centered on incentives the state Legislature and local governments offered Dell in 2004 in exchange for a pledge to create at least 1,500 jobs at its plant near Winston-Salem, N.C., and to invest at least $100 million in the area over the next 15 years. The 750,000-square-foot operation opened in the fall of 2005 and currently employs more than 1,100 workers.
Round Rock, Texas-based Dell could get up to $278 million in state incentives if it meets investment and employment goals, along with a local package of $37.2 million in incentives to cover startup, tax relief and other costs.
''The only people who still believe that economic incentives were unconstitutional were the plaintiffs,'' said Burley Mitchell, the former state Supreme Court chief justice who represented Dell in the case.
The court's decision is a setback for Orr, who has vowed to curb or eliminate incentives that benefit one company if elected governor next year. His former group, the North Carolina Institute for Constitutional Law, initiated the lawsuit and said it may appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court. The state's high court isn't obligated to consider it.
''If there are no constitutional limitations that can be enforced by the judiciary, then there has to be political limitations, which can only come about when you have people in elected office willing to put limitation on the use of the public's money,'' Orr said.