CHAPEL HILL — In all my years of being involved in North Carolina’s high-tech industry, I never expected to see or hear what happened on Tuesday afternoon.

A Republican leader in the General Assembly – Senator GOP leader Patrick Ballantine of Wilmington – drew cheers and applause at a technology event.

The anger and frustration felt by many in the state’s high-tech sector finally — and firmly — broke into the wide, wide open during a panel discussion that closed NCEITA’s annual technology forum. As NCEITA has documented, nearly half of the state’s high-tech firms have disappeared over the past two years in the post-dot com bubble. Some firms have grown, but NCEITA and a host of other tech thought leaders such as at the Institute for Emerging Issues are issuing dire warnings that North Carolina is squandering its high-tech leadership position.

It’s too bad Democratic leaders and Gov. Mike Easley weren’t in Chapel Hill to witness the latest chorus –no, make that a barrage — of criticism.

If Democrats have taken support from high-tech for granted, they shouldn’t any longer.
Normally, Democrats dominate the speaker and attendee lists at forums and such. But that’s changing. The recent Emerging Issues Forum, led by the state’s best-known Democrat, Jim Hunt, was definitely bi-partisan. And at NCEITA’S two-day show, Democrat Congressman Bobby Etheridge was on hand to deliver brief remarks at lunch. But the closing panel included one politico — Ballantine.

Is tech sending a message?

Tech is fed up — and not going to take the seeming chaos occurring on a regular basis downtown any longer.

Leader after leader complained about tax code, incentives, lack of concern for existing high-tech companies, the investment of state resources in infrastructure, education spending — and a whole lot more.

Sermon from the panel

Ballantine, who is seen by many people as a rising star in that party, was part of a panel discussion that ended NCEITA’S annual technology conference. And he didn’t squander the opportunity.

Some of his comments:

“We’ve got to address the tax code.”

“We have too many legislators who don’t understand information technology.

“My goal is to make North Carolina the technology leader in the world. We have the talent and resources to do it. Let’s get together and figure out a way to get there.”

“We need capital gains tax relief.”

“We need R&D credits.”

“The tax code is a big part of our economic stagnation.”

“We have the highest sales tax in the Southeast.”

“We have the highest income tax in the Southeast.”

“We’ve got to change that model.”

“We’re trying to shoe-horn businesses into certain parts of the state — and it’s not going to work.”

“One of my pet peeves is that we have 47 different job training programs. We spend $800 million a year on job training. It should be consolidated into one or two or three programs. That’s bureaucratic waste.”

“We have increased tax revenues by over $600 million. We don’t have a revenue problem. We have a spending problem.”

What happened to “State of Minds”?

Not all comments were directed to Ballantine, but he certainly heard them.

Tech execs such as Steve Parrot, state executive for Sprint in the Carolinas, pointed out that he wasn’t looking for “hand-outs.” Rather, he wanted attention paid to existing companies as well as recruitment of others.

John Weir, president of Nimbus Technologies, wasn’t complaining about taxes but the fact that “We’re not playing on a level playing field.” He was talking about more than state issues, noting that “A lot of the bills are being paid out of my pocket and not from the pockets of my overseas competitors.” His frustration was clear.

Noah Pickus, director of the Institute for Emerging Issues at NC State who also works with Hunt on the Emerging Issues Forum, didn’t go on a rant against the General Assembly. But he did talk about how the future is convergence — and that’s not happening in North Carolina. He reiterated his belief that universities, private industry and government have to find a means of working more closely if the state is to capitalize on its high-tech infrastructure.

“It’s hard to look beyond your nose right now,” he said in reference to the General Assembly. But he called for the politicians to take an inventory of what’s being done on the tech front and re-evaluate each initiative or program.

“Tech investments in the state — what are they,” he asked. “What’s working? What’s not?”

Joan Myers, the president and CEO of NCEITA, pointed out that the industry group spent $50,000 in cash and invested a great deal of intellectual capital to formulate a marketing campaign for the state:

“North Carolina: The State of Minds.”

What happened to it, she asked?

“We gave that as a gift to the state,” she said.

Jim Fain, director of the Department of Commerce, embraced the concept. But little has been done. Myers said she had seen one full-page ad in a magazine.

“How do we interact to get this message out,” Myers asked Ballantine directly. “As far as I am concerned, we failed.”

Myers also reiterated one of her standing arguments about how education dollars are spent — some $8 a year on IT spending per student, a fraction of the national average.

An NCEITA member, noting that he was a Democrat, complained to Ballantine about how the state was investing in infrastructure.

“We’re putting dollars into infrastructure in areas that have no hope for growth,” he said.

Ballantine’s closing remarks capture why he just may attract quite a following among tech leaders.

“This is a matter of priorities. We haven’t made the right choices,” he said. “We need to restructure our priorities, and we need to get it done quickly. We are at a crossroads.”

After the session, more than one exec was heard to comment about how impressive Ballantine was.

“I hope he runs for governor,” one said.

Rick Smith is managing editor of Local Tech Wire. He has been involved in high-tech since 1992 and helped launch Interpath, one of the state’s first Internet Service Providers.