Murphy, in South Jersey, renews push to revamp tax breaks
The state budget isn’t the only major legislation that needs to be passed this month – and it might not even be the thorniest.
Also on the to-do list is the future of New Jersey’s business tax incentive programs, which have also become the flashpoint in a feud between Gov. Phil Murphy and George Norcross, the insurance and hospital executive and leader of the Democratic Party in South Jersey.
Murphy took his push for a new tax-incentive structure into Norcross’ territory Wednesday with a speech at 1776, a startup incubator at Cherry Hill Mall. He didn’t revise the plan he had advocated for since October and hopes to get approved this month by the Legislature.
“We must prove to the people of New Jersey than we can focus on more than one challenge at one time. We must prove to our business community that we won’t hold them hostage to Trenton’s political battles,” Murphy said.
“And when we sit down together and speak not in breathless and accusatory tones but on respectful terms, I know we can get this done,” he said.
Legislators have indicated that they might seek a temporary extension of the current tax incentive program while a long-term solution is negotiated. Murphy has said he would rather have no incentive program than to keep the current one, though he didn’t repeat that Wednesday.
“I am not here today to debate whether we have a business incentive program. We should and we will,” Murphy said. “Rather, I am here to talk about what kind of business incentive program we must have.”
Murphy said his proposal calls for $400 million in annual incentives, more targeted than the current program, which expires June 30 and has been the subject of a critical audit by the comptroller and a series of hearings by a task force appointed by the governor.
“I will not unilaterally disarm our economic development while our competitor states are luring businesses, in part, through incentives,” Murphy said. “However, I will not simply renew a set of incentive programs when serious questions exist about whether they have been successful in spurring broad-based economic activity in our communities, or even if their most basic promises have been met.
“Yes, business tax incentives must be part of a smartly designed and strategically deployed economic program. But, the operative words is that sentence are ‘part of,’” Murphy said.
Murphy didn’t directly mention Norcross, whose allies have portrayed the Tax Incentives Task Force as intent on dragging down Camden by undercutting attempts at economic rehabilitation.
But there were allusions to Norcross and the ongoing political and legal feud.
“This is not about one city, one company, or one person,” Murphy said. “As I’ve said, the overwhelming number of incentive recipients are good businesses and good corporate citizens. They have followed the rules and followed through on their promises. They have shown their commitment to our state and our people.
“This is not about them,” he said. “What this is about is making sure we have policies in place that don’t just allow some to do well, but which allow entire communities to do well.”
Murphy said “economic growth can’t just be about helping a select few and the politically connected.”
“I’m an unapologetic capitalist. But the price we pay for the unlimited upside of the American Dream cannot be in an unlimited downside for those who are struggling to realize their dreams,” he said.
“We cannot ignore that our current system of open-ended and out-sized corporate tax breaks has hurt our ability to invest more deeply in our communities and in the things that businesses look for when choosing a location,” he said.
Murphy said businesses also should be incentivized to become part of a community, an implicit criticism that some of the businesses relocating their headquarters to Camden are 9-to-5 commuter destinations not leading to stores, restaurants or other surrounding community development.
“Instead of a system that benefits only a few actors, and at unsustainable rates that hurt our ability to invest in our core values, let’s enact a new system that works for the broad array of businesses but even more for the broad array of our communities,” Murphy said.
The Senate has appointed a special committee that will look at the state’s economic incentive programs, but it has not yet met. The Assembly also plans hearing, using its regular committee structure.