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State Street: Sandy recovery is in the credit cards for insurers

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Chris Christie providing a storm update earlier this month. Insurers can now issue Sandy claim payments by debit card.
Chris Christie providing a storm update earlier this month. Insurers can now issue Sandy claim payments by debit card. - ()

Gov. Chris Christie unleashed a flurry of executive orders in the wakeof Hurricane Sandy — and one of the first opened a new market for credit card companies.

Christie's Nov. 2 executive order for the first time allows regulated insurance companies to issue claim payments via prepaid debit card. The change comes with a few conditions — insurers must let customers choose which form of payment they want, insurers can't charge fees and customers must be allowed to convert the payments into cash.

Still, it represents a new opportunity for credit card companies, which have been trying to get the federal government and states, including New Jersey, to embrace plastic. New Jersey and the federal government already issue some social program payments via prepaid debit cards, but until now, the Department of Banking and Insurance hasn't let regulated insurers use the cards for payments.

In a written statement, MasterCard Worldwide said the change will prove beneficial for consumers.

"Branded prepaid cards, including MasterCard, are widely accepted by retailers, contractors and others, and also allow online and telephone purchases to be made," said Ron Hynes, group executive of global prepaid solutions at MasterCard. "This was a good call by the governor that will benefit people all across our state."

Hynes said prepaid debit cards could prove especially beneficial for customers who don't have a bank, or who were cut off from their bank by the storm.

If the Sandy experience goes smoothly, credit card companies hope to make the insurance regulation change permanent, and someday convince the state to also issue income tax rebates on prepaid debit.

Storm has Sierra Club aiming to close Shore building loophole

The storm has also created opportunities for environmental lobbyists. Jeff Tittel, executive director of the Sierra Club of New Jersey, said he hopes to finally convince state leaders to close a loophole in the state's Coastal Area Facilities Act, known as CAFRA, which governs development on the shore.

Currently, buildings with fewer than 25 units are exempt from the law, which hurts its effectiveness, Tittel said, pointing to a bunch of 24-unit condominiums on the Shore as an example.

The loophole has long been a target for the Sierra Club and other groups, but hadn't garnered much momentum in recent years.

"Now I think there might be more of an awakening by government that they need to actually take more of a leadership role in protecting this asset that belongs to all of us," he said.

The last major push to close the loophole came after Hurricane Floyd, when Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Trenton) sponsored a bill to reform CAFRA. Tittel said he's begun speaking with legislators again, trying to explain why damage from Sandy was worse than it would have been if CAFRA were tightened.

The storm hasn't totally changed the Sierra Club's agenda, however.

"Before the storm, our legislative priority was to find a stable source of funding for open space using new revenue, so that we're not cutting programs," he said. "That's still viable, because we need money to buy out flood-prone properties."

Oliver says she can push for recovery, wage bill together

During a press conference in advance of Monday's minimum-wage hike hearing, Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver (D-East Orange) was asked if the wage increase would hurt businesses' ability to recover from Sandy.

Her response: "The Legislature is capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time."

Oliver went on to say she'd be "working diligently" to help storm-ravaged businesses while at the same time pushing her bill to bump the minimum wage up to $8.50 per hour and link it to the consumer price index.

Perhaps to underscore her point, the speaker also introduced a bill Nov. 19 to provide sales tax rebates to small businesses and homeowners affected by the storm. The bill echoes similar legislation passed in the wake of Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

The bill, co-sponsored by Assemblyman Lou Greenwald (D-Voorhees) would exempt purchases of construction materials, home goods like flooring, and vehicles for storm victims through Jan. 1, 2014.

"This will provide relief to residents and small businesses, while helping spark economic activity in our state as we look to rebuild," Greenwald said in a press release.

Restaurant group chief took office as storm closed eateries

Marilou Halvorsen has a good story to tell about the start of her tenure as head of the New Jersey Restaurant Association.

"My first official duty was to close the office for two days," she said.

That's because her first day — Oct. 29 — was also the day Sandy hit. In the wake of the storm, though, Halvorsen's most eager to tell her members' stories.

"It really runs the full gamut," she said. "We have restaurants that have been completely devastated and destroyed, some that have a lot of damage, and others that were able to stay open."

Halvorsen, previously director of marketing for Jenkinson's boardwalk, in Point Pleasant Beach, takes over the organization eight months after the death of her predecessor, Deborah Dowdell, who had led the group since 2003.

Halvorsen said the association's staff has done a good job between presidents, but she hopes to revitalize the organization as she takes the helm. Other long-term goals include boosting membership and staying active on the legislative front. But for now, Halvorsen said her top priority remains helping members to reopen and putting the industry's thousands of employees back to work. She said restaurants are asking for help expediting the insurance process, filing unemployment paperwork and dealing with sales taxes, since some members lost financial books in the storm.

But part of Halvorsen's message is simply to highlight the role restaurants play in the community.

"As I keep saying, the restaurants during this time become the kitchens and family rooms for the neighborhood," she said. "It's the place where people without power can eat."

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