Did NJ lawmakers really hear what voters were saying in November?
In the aftermath of the November election, Democratic Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin said, “There was clearly a message that was sent by voters last Tuesday. We're going to sit down and figure out what that was.”
On Tuesday I moderated a panel of legislative leaders for the New Jersey Business & Industry Association's 2022 Public Policy Forum held at the Delta Hotels by Marriott Woodbridge.
The panel was made up of: Senate President Steve Sweeney; Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean, Jr.; Assembly Budget Chairwoman Eliana Pintor Martin; and Ranking Assembly Republican Budget Committee Member Nancy Munoz.
I was tasked with helping small businesses understand what the tax and regulatory climate would be moving forward, especially now that the pandemic seems poised to be extended by the emergence of the omicron COVID variant.
When I asked Pintor Martin (who was on the panel because Coughlin said he had a conflict) if they had figured out what message voters were sending, she said, "Everyone got a wake up call that maybe we should slow down on the big items and get back to some of the basics.”
Pressed on whether, as Budget Chairwoman, she would hold Gov. Phil Murphy to his "no new taxes" pledge, Pintor Martin was non-committal, but expected that would hold true.
However, for businesses, they are already looking at a substantial tax hike in the form of what they will have to pay to replenish the Unemployment Insurance Fund.
The Department of Labor and Workforce Development has already notified employers they have to start contributing more to replace the record payouts caused by pandemic related shutdowns and unprecedented unemployment claims.
The NJBIA and other groups estimate the collective tax hike will be in excess of $250 million.
How that fund is replenished is of particular interest to businesses that are still struggling to get back to pre-pandemic levels of staffing and profitability. Many small businesses work on such small margins, any increase can mean the difference between staying open, or closing for good.
The NJBIA's recent Annual Business Outlook Survey detailed some disturbing trends.
Nearly 60% of business owners said they were either looking to end their businesses sooner, or at least considering it due to the challenges they are facing.
No issue was greater than the ability to find workers.
Even with wages increasing as much as five percent, the majority of businesses said hiring was their number one concern, even more than taxes.
Sweeney pointed to the state's 'return and earn' program that offered $500 incentives for residents to return to work, but questioned the effectiveness. New Jersey's unemployment rate remains above 7% and among the highest in the nation.
Munoz, Sweeney and Kean expressed support for bolstering the state's child care infrastructure, with Sweeney arguing for state paid for pre-k programs beginning at birth.
There also appeared to be consensus among legislative leaders to offer businesses some form of UI relief by possibly using some of the remaining federal Cares Act funding to ease the burden on employers. They were less than optimistic about any actual tax cuts.
On Tuesday, State lawmakers approved more than $700 million in spending of federal and state funds to support more than a dozen economic development, open space and pandemic recovery projects favored by Murphy, but did not include and UI relief.
On the political side, it's not clear how much influence Kean and Sweeney will have. Both are leaving the legislature in January. Kean did not seek another term, opting to run for congress in the 7th district. Sweeney lost to truck driver Ed Durr in one of the most stunning political upsets in New Jersey history.
Sweeney, however, said the election results (including his defeat) were evidence that New Jersey is a moderate state, not a progressive one, and "The state needs to get back to the middle where 80% of the people are." That, he said, will force both parties to work more closely for the common good.