State Street: Advocates expect charged fight over minimum wage


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Sandy continues to dominate State Street's attention, but its closest rival for airtime surged back into the headlines last week, when Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford) and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-East Orange) reached a deal on a bill that would increase the minimum wage. Sweeney reportedly agreed to move forward an Assembly bill that would raise the minimum wage and create automatic increases linked to the Consumer Price Index.

Sweeney had favored sending the measure directly to voters, but now says he'll send the item to Gov. Chris Christie's desk first, using a referendum as a backup plan if Christie vetoes the bill.

The Sweeney/Oliver deal was billed as a compromise, but Melanie Willoughby, senior vice president of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, said it doesn't seem that way to her. She notes the main tenets of the proposal — the wage hike and CPI link — remain unchanged.

What has changed are the economic conditions in the state.

"You can't hit companies with a 17 percent increase in wages when the economy is still in recovery and in the process of rebuilding from Superstorm Sandy," she said.

Willoughby said her group would be open to discussing a phased-in wage hike if it didn't include the CPI clause.

In the meantime, lobbyists and business groups are preparing for battle, not just over the legislation, but also over the possible referendum that would likely go before voters if Christie vetoes the Assembly bill.

"It seems to me it's going to be every bit as charged as pension and benefit reform," said Michael P. Turner, president of Burton Trent Public Affairs. "The difference here is, if it's a referendum question, will it affect the election next year?"

Turner thinks it's no coincidence that the Democrat-backed minimum wage hike could end up on the same ballot as the 2013 governor's race. Christie said last week he's still evaluating whether or not to run for re-election.


NJBIA turns to other states in dispensing storm cleanup aid

As the NJBIA helps members recover from the storm, it’s looking to other storm-ravaged states for advice.

Willoughby said the association has been in contact with business groups in the hurricane-hit states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, as well as Missouri, which was rocked by a tornado in Joplin last year.

One key lesson: Mind the gaps.

“We’ve learned a lot about the system that is going to help businesses to rebuild, and there are gaps, definitely, that will exist,” Willoughby said.

Willoughby said some businesses face shortcomings even after insurance and loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration. That’s why other states have set up grant programs to fill those gaps and get businesses the capital they need to get back to work as soon as possible, she said.

“We are now in a disaster recovery mode and rebuilding our state so it’s a place where people want to stay,” she said.


Sandy puts incentive overhaul on assemblyman’s back burner

Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Newark) also is in evaluation mode. Last week, the chair of the Commerce and Economic Development Committee said he’ll revisit his planned overhaul of the state’s business incentives in order to ensure the package of reforms provides the maximum benefit to the state’s tourism industry.

“It’s important that whatever incentives we do have in place reflect the top priorities of the state,” he said. “At this point, rebuilding of the tourism industry and commerce associated with that has to be a top priority.”

Coutinho has been at work for months coming up with changes to the state’s suite of incentive programs. He’s not throwing that work away, but instead plans to see what changes can be made to enhance tourism. In some cases, he said, that might include expanding eligibility, to ensure that shore communities can benefit. Coutinho had previously hoped to have his incentive changes in place by the end of the year. He said spring 2013 is now more likely.

“I would hope that the full state and legislative remedies are in place by no later than budget break, but a lot of this is going to depend on how much the federal government ends up doing in helping us out,” he said.

Coutinho said his spate of proposals will affect all five of the state’s incentive programs, though he said some will be the subject of only minor changes.


‘Never Again,’ Lesniak says of prolonged power outages

The recovery and reinforcement of the state’s electrical grid was top of mind for Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) last week. Lesniak joined Joseph Cryan and Annette Quijano (both D-Union) to launch the “Never Again” campaign. The goal is to have the state’s electrical utilities make major infrastructure upgrades that would, in theory, make Sandy’s devastation a one-time event.

“This is a massive problem because we have not updated our delivery system for power, there are no quick fixes and there’s no one solution,” Lesniak said.

Lesniak last week released a letter he sent to the heads of Public Service Enterprise Group (parent of Public Service Electric & Gas), Jersey Central Power & Light and Atlantic City Electric, urging them to conduct need and cost estimates for a set of upgrades, including fortifying substations, stepping up tree pruning, introducing smart meters and establishing redundancy systems.

Lesniak said those goals involve both short-term and long-term steps, as well as a significant financial investment that would ultimately be borne by ratepayers.

“I know most residents would be willing to have a modest increase in their electric bill in order to ensure that they never go through this again,” he said.

In his letter, Lesniak said he hoped the costs, amortized over 30 years, could be “in the range of $5 a week extra cost” to ratepayers.

“Now is the time to act,” he said. “Unfortunately, government doesn’t act, and the people don’t demand action until real crisis.”

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