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'Last bite at the apple' for incentives

Window to pass pro-business bills may be closing, some experts warn

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Albert Coutinho says getting incentives bills passed has involved spending 'extensive political capital'.
Albert Coutinho says getting incentives bills passed has involved spending 'extensive political capital'. - (Aaron Houston)

A movement to expand pro-business initiatives is running on fumes, with the political pressure of next year's gubernatorial election mounting and lawmakers becoming more critical of New Jersey's incentive programs.

Such is the concern of one of the state's most vocal pro-business lawmakers, who said a window to institute the kind of reforms businesses have enjoyed in recent years may be closing.

"I believe we have one last bite at the apple now, in December, to get really successful or really aggressive pro-business legislation done," said Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Newark), who chairs the Assembly Commerce and Economic Development Committee. "Personally, with the friction, apparently, somewhat picking up, I hope to get significant incentive upgrades before the end of the year, because I think we need to do more."

A top issue for Coutinho is revamping the state's popular incentive programs. He said he hopes lawmakers can expand and revise them through legislation, especially as the Urban Transit Hub tax credit program approaches its statutory funding limit.

But that could be a tall order if Trenton does not act before year's end: With next year's elections in sight, Coutinho said, he is unsure of how willingly Democratic lawmakers would support Gov. Chris Christie's pro-business agenda. And while the economic meltdown of 2008 sparked bipartisan support for economic reforms, he said, friction over those ideas is starting to return, especially within his own caucus.

Coutinho's concerns are not universally shared — at least, not in their full form. Alfred C. Koeppe, board chairman of the state Economic Development Authority, said it's more likely some lawmakers want to see "measurable results" from incentive programs before acting again, rather than deliberately obstructing reform efforts.

"When you're in a heated election cycle, which we may or may not be in … sometimes you tend to look at everything through that lens," Koeppe said. "But in reality, people can have legitimate differences of opinion for the best of reasons."

Some of that apparently has come from the EDA itself. In July, Christie announced that his appointments counsel, Michele Brown, would replace Caren S. Franzini as the EDA's chief executive. The pick has drawn intense protest from state Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak (D-Union), who accused Christie of politicizing the agency. In an earlier interview with NJBIZ, Lesniak said he plans to block any new incentive bills, which routinely are sent his way as chair of the Senate's Economic Growth committee.

Coutinho said he already has "had to use extensive political capital" to advance incentives legislation in recent sessions. He has had support from his party's leaders in the Statehouse, "but even though you look at the vote totals, and it looks great, there is a lot of friction within the Legislature on a lot of these programs."

And the approach of the 2013 election will likely dampen cooperation between Democrats and the Christie administration, said Peter Woolley, a political science professor at Farleigh Dickinson University. "It's going to be a long gubernatorial election, because there's no heir apparent on the Democratic side," he said, so several candidates could vie for the nomination.

"I think running up to an election, people tend to want to draw bright lines between them and the opposition," Woolley said. "One thing I expect … (is) a race to see who can criticize the governor and his business positions more."

Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy, a Democrat whose city has benefited from reforms made on Christie's watch, is of the opinion that the 2013 election season already has begun. But he said politics shouldn't stifle efforts to expand programs like Urban Transit Hub, which has led to more than $600 million in planned capital investment in the city.

Healy said Christie and his would-be challenger should remember that "good government is good politics," noting that revitalizing cities are key to the state's success.

"I guess I'm an eternal optimist," he said. "I view it as an opportunity for more cooperation with the state. When it comes to economic advancement, economic development, I think it crosses party lines."

Woolley, meanwhile, said "there's still the possibility that pro-business (Democrats) will be willing to cross the aisle on a few votes. … And, of course, in some ways, that's been the secret to the governor's success on this issue and on a number of others."

Whether the state's incentive programs are tweaked any further remains to be seen, Koeppe said. But regardless of political divisions, he said, lawmakers and leaders in both parties understand the need to address the state's jobs problem.

"I think our Legislature recognizes we've got some challenges and we've got to fix them," he said. "I'd be really disappointed if that wasn't the case going forward."

E-mail to: joshb@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @joshburdnj

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Joshua Burd

Joshua Burd

Josh Burd covers real estate, economic development and sports and entertainment. Before joining NJBIZ in 2011, he spent four years as a metro reporter in Central Jersey. His email is joshb@njbiz.com and he is @JoshBurdNJ on Twitter.

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