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State Street: Rejecting speculation about special session on incentives

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From left, Albert Coutinho, Raymond Lesniak and Ted Zangari, all backers of a bill to overhaul New Jersey incentives programs.
From left, Albert Coutinho, Raymond Lesniak and Ted Zangari, all backers of a bill to overhaul New Jersey incentives programs. - (AARON HOUSTON)

News that final approval of the bills to overhaul New Jersey's business incentives may not happen until May is causing concern in some quarters, but sources are saying they're hopeful the issue is addressed in a special session next month.

The timetable for passage has long been in flux. The legislation was put on the back burner after Hurricane Sandy, but lawmakers still hoped to pass the bills before next month's budget break.

That optimism was rekindled March 6, when Gov. Chris Christie told a meeting of NAIOP New Jersey he was eager to sign the legislation, which was proposed by Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Newark) and Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) and would pare the state's five existing incentive programs down to two, Grow New Jersey and the Economic Redevelopment and Growth program.

That hope faded the following week, as Lesniak and Coutinho said there wouldn't be enough time to iron out amendments and clear the procedural hurdles before the budget break. Instead, they said, the bills would top the agenda in May.

The legislation has strong bipartisan support, so it's expected to pass. Still, some in the economic development community fear the delay could increase the opportunity for hiccups.

Ted Zangari, a real estate attorney with Sills, Cummis & Gross P.C., acknowledged the bill is ambitious and highly technical. He said he's disappointed, but not surprised that the bill wasn't passed before the budget break.

"Now the question is how quickly can leadership step up and get the bill on the governor's desk prior to the summer break," he said.

However, Zangari and other backers may not have to wait until May. Three sources told State Street last week there was talk of holding an April special session to pass the bills sooner rather than later.

The thinking, according to sources, is that waiting until May might send a bad signal if the New Jersey Economic Development Authority awards all of its remaining Urban Transit Hub and Grow New Jersey funding before May, or if major projects get put on hold due to the uncertainty.

Sources said it's also about comfort. The sooner the bill is a done deal, the sooner contingent business deals can be solidified.

Lesniak, however, dismissed talk of a special session.

"It's always possible, but there's still a lot of work to be done and the budget committee is deeply immersed in their (budget) deliberations," he said. "And I don't see any particular reason to have this bill done in April as opposed to May."

Lesniak also noted he originally pushed for a $1 billion increase in the Urban Transit Hub cap last year, but the proposal was pared down to $250 million after GOP opposition. Lesniak said there wouldn't be the same time crunch had his higher funding level been approved.

Lesniak said he's confident the bill will be passed in May. He said stakeholders ought to be, too.

"They ought to sit back and chill out," he said.

SBDC says N.J. should
offer more funding

New Jersey’s Small Business Development Centers are breathing a sigh of relief this budget season.

Christie’s fiscal 2014 budget keeps the agency’s funding flat, at $250,000. That’s good news for an agency that’s seen its budget in peril over the last half-decade.

“We’re certainly very pleased about the $250,000,” said Deborah Smarth, chief operating officer and assistant state director of NJSBDC.

Back in 2008, Gov. Jon S. Corzine proposed cutting funding for the centers from $1 million to zero. Funding was later restored to $500,000, but has since been cut further.

Those cuts were particularly painful because the agency relied on federal matching funds. Thus the lower their state funding, the lower their opportunity for federal matching grants.

Last year, the state’s 11 centers said they counseled some 5,730 small-business clients, helped 632 clients start new businesses and facilitated $64.8 million in total financing. That work became critical late in the year, as the centers helped businesses damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

Though Smarth is happy with this year’s funding level, she hopes to eventually get back up to $500,000, or more, noting New Jersey still ranks far below states like Georgia and North Carolina when it comes to state SBDC funding.

“We’re pleased with the funding,” she said. “We couldn’t ask for more. But incrementally, I think New Jersey can invest more in its small-business assistance resources.”

 

Addressing a different
kind of pork in N.J.

Hog farming isn’t exactly big business in New Jersey, but a push to limit confinement of gestating pigs drew plenty of attention in the Garden State last week.

The Assembly voted to send Gov. Chris Christie a bill that would require farmers to keep gestating pigs in crates large enough to turn around in. Failure to do so would become an animal cruelty offense.

Ed Wengryn, research associate at the New Jersey Farm Bureau, said his group counts only 250 pig farmers in the state, and only about 50 breeders. Despite the small footprint, the issue’s sparked a fierce battle among an array of national interest groups, including the Humane Society of the United States and the National Pork Producers Council.

Wengryn said the bill is unnecessary, and would set a bad precedent.

“The issue for us is the Department of Agriculture already has standards that regulate how a farmer can and can’t use crates,” he said. “This kind of goes around that process, instead of leaving it in the hands of experts.”

But in a letter sent to all 80 members of the Assembly, a trio of animal welfare organizations said the bill would protect New Jersey.

“This bill simply removes the welcome mat for out-of-state factory farms looking to displace New Jersey farmers by bringing these inhumane crates to New Jersey,” the letter stated.

Some, however, think the bill’s import extends far beyond New Jersey.

One source, who asked not to be identified for fear of becoming a target of animal rights groups, said animal groups want see passage of the law here as a way to gain the political momentum to pass the laws in pork-producing states.

The source also noted most pork-producing states have Republican governors. Christie’s signature on New Jersey’s bill might therefore convince other red-state governors to do the same.

Then again, with one eye on the 2016 presidential race, Christie may want to steer clear of signing a bill that’s sure to prove unpopular in the politically important state of Iowa.

Matt Dominguez, public policy manager of farm animal protection for the Humane Society, said it’s true they want such laws in all 50 states, but said he’s not sure Christie’s stature in the GOP would make much of a difference with other Republican governors.

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