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State Street: Despite marathon session, bill on incentives gets pushed to May

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David Brogan, with New Jersey Business and Industry Association, says when companies make location decisions, they look at existing incentive programs.
David Brogan, with New Jersey Business and Industry Association, says when companies make location decisions, they look at existing incentive programs. - ()

After a month of anticipation and nail-biting, April draws to a close this week without a special legislative session to consider the Economic Opportunity Act of 2013.

The legislation — sponsored in the state Senate by Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) and in the Assembly by Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Newark) — would streamline the state's business incentives, paring the current five programs down to two.

Economic development officials adopted varying degrees of panic in recent weeks, worried big-name projects, like potential expansions by Lockheed Martin and Subaru, could be sidelined if the legislation wasn't passed by the end of April. But as last week came to a close, those fears gave way to an "ASAP" posture.

"I think there is a general sense on the part of the industry that New Jersey has a willingness to refine and improve its business incentive programs and will do that," said Anthony Pizzutillo, a lobbyist representing the commercial real estate group NAIOP. "I think there will be a big disappointment if that isn't done in the short term."

David Brogan, first vice president at the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, said he personally knew of no projects that were sidelined because of the delay in passing the bills. Still, he said, when individual companies make location decisions, they look at what's in place at the time.

"So if it's not there at the time they're deciding, it's a problem," he said.

Sources tell State Street that officials spent a marathon session April 23 making changes to the Assembly version, largely in order to ensure concurrence with the Senate version ahead of a scheduled Budget Committee vote on April 25.

Among the issues discussed was whether companies should be required to make a capital investment to qualify for incentives, or whether simply adding jobs is enough. The latter is the standard for the Business Employment Incentive Program, which would be eliminated by the legislation. Details were still being sorted out last week, but it appeared the final bill would require capital investments.

"Clearly any business organization would support having a grant for jobs without a capital investment requirement," Brogan said. "Having said that, we think that the capital investment requirements as they were in S-2583 are reasonable. I think also that it addresses some of the concerns by people that were saying companies have no skin in the game. This provides some skin."

Pizzutillo said he's now hoping for passage by mid-May. If that doesn't happen then or soon after, he said, "that will send a signal to the community that New Jersey no longer has a competitive business climate that it once had."

Expo draws chuckle amid blue laws bluster

Super Bowl Sunday is bound to be an economic juggernaut for northern New Jersey, but it may not be powerful enough to beat back Bergen's half-century-old blue laws.

The Meadowlands Regional Chamber of Commerce announced earlier this month that it would hold a "Big Game Experience Conference and Expo" May 22 to help connect tourism officials and potential vendors ahead of next year's Super Bowl and MetLife Stadium.

The event's presenting sponsor is the Westfield Garden State Plaza.

That fact drew a chuckle from John Holub, president of the New Jersey Retail Merchants Association, who noted that the shopping center, which is located in Paramus, won't actually be open on Super Bowl Sunday thanks to Bergen's blue laws, which restrict commerce on Sundays.

"The Super Bowl is yet another perfect example of the absurdity of the blue laws, that you are going to have the eyes of the world on New Jersey, on Bergen County, and stores can't be open," he said. "It's extremely absurd."

The issue is a favorite pet peeve of Holub, who cites a "conservative" two-year-old study that found allowing business on Sundays would generate more than a billion dollars in sales, send more than $65 million in taxes to the state, and create 3,200 jobs.

However, blue laws continue to receive strong support in many quarters. The last time the issue was up for a public referendum, in 1993, citizens voted overwhelmingly to keep them. A group called "Modernize Bergen County" is currently collecting signatures in hopes of placing a repeal referendum on this November's ballot.

A Bergen County spokesman didn't respond when asked if a Super Bowl Sunday exemption might be in the works.

Holub said he thinks a referendum is the harder way to change the law. The easier way, he said, would be for the state Legislature to repeal the legislation enabling counties to enact blue laws. That's proven a tough sell in Trenton.

"Policymakers still seem to be stuck on the old political assumptions that people don't favor (repeal)," Holub said. "And it's not the case anymore."

PSI calls PR 'a natural fit' for its clients

Another big-name lobbying firm is launching a strategic communications arm.

Public Strategies Impact, the firm founded by Harold L. Hodes and Roger A. Bodman, said last week it will branch into public relations.

The firm has hired Timothy J. Carroll, a former statehouse reporter and state Senate staffer, to lead the operation as director of communications and public affairs.

"I think the services they offer all require public relations, so it's a natural fit," said Carroll, who started April 22. "It actually provides the bridge between all those other services."

PSI was the second-highest-grossing lobbying firm in Trenton in 2012, according to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, with receipts of about $6.1 million.

In making a push into public relations, PSI joins Princeton Public Affairs Group, which announced earlier this month it would start a communications practice.

Bodman said PSI's stature in the lobbying community will be a selling point to potential public relations clients.

"Our clients trust us and are confident that our lobbying successes will translate into success in the public relations arena," said Bodman, in a written statement.

PSI has more than 120 clients across a range of industries, and also manages several professional associations. The firm has been doing communications work for about a dozen clients thus far, with plans to expand.

Carroll described himself as a "Swiss Army knife" of sorts, with skills in both new and old media. He previously was a statehouse reporter for PolitickerNJ.com. He also worked for state Sen. Richard J. Codey (D-Livingston) and state Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Edison).

Carroll said his background, plus the extensive connections of his bosses, will prove valuable for clients.

"I think that's a trust issue," he said. "I think that it provides our clients with a level of trust that few firms can provide."

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