By EMERY P. DALESIO, The Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. — Tax breaks for airlines, NASCAR race teams, and paper factories drew barely a mention, but a $300 million bundle of business sweeteners drew opposition Thursday to subsidizing the salaries of Tom Cruise and other movie stars.

Still, attempts to trim the collection of inducements for business and job growth failed before the state House tentatively approved the legislation 76-28. A final House vote is expected Monday.

The incentives package also includes breaks aimed at attracting two computer data centers, an energy turbine manufacturer, and a plant converting wood pulp to paper. If all the unnamed companies moved into the state, they would combine for more than 1,500 jobs and nearly $2 billion in investment, lawmakers said.

Legislative fiscal analysts estimated the bill collecting most of the year’s proposed business breaks would cost $300 million in uncollected taxes in the next five years.

One provision would allow the salaries of star actors and directors to count toward the amount movie and television producers could write off their North Carolina taxes, up to a maximum per feature film raised from $7.5 million to $20 million. But opponents argued that the provision could mean a multi-million-dollar refund check from taxpayers for producers who manage to avoid owing North Carolina taxes.

"We’re subsidizing superstars," said Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham.

Lawmakers including Rep. Edgar Starnes, R-Caldwell, said it was insulting to offer tax breaks on moviestar salaries at a time when recession is forcing cuts in education and human services and unemployment is 10.8 percent statewide.

But Rep. Frank Iler, R-Brunswick, and others said more would become jobless if productions don’t return to employ the technicians, electricians and caterers concentrated in Wilmington.

The expanded film incentives are an uncomfortable break from the existing $1 million limit per individual’s salary, but the industry has been withering in North Carolina under competition from juicier inducements offered by other states, said Rep. Pryor Gibson, D-Anson.

"The chances of us getting the highly paid actors is slim, but we really want the productions," said Rep. Bill Owens, D-Pasquotank. "We’ve got to get North Carolina back on the map for these productions."

Fewer major Hollywood movies have films in North Carolina since 2008’s "Nights in Rodanthe" with Richard Gere and Diane Lane and "Leatherheads" with George Clooney and Renee Zellweger.

Movie and TV projects spent $67 million in North Carolina on goods, services and salaries in 2007, $148 million in 2008 and $55 million in 2009, according to state Revenue Department records showing producers claimed $44 million in tax credits in those three years.

The expanded film credit is predicted to cost $166 million over the next five years if movie studios ramp up projects in the state.

Supporters said many of the breaks are allowed only after investments are made and jobs created, so the inducements cost state taxpayers nothing up front. Opponents said if that were true, then tax breaks ten times larger would have ten times the impact on employment.

"This is a magical bill – it’s like a perpetual motion machine. It costs us nothing and yet produces thousands of jobs," said House Minority Leader Paul Stam, R-Wake.

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