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Business incentives overhaul heads back before Senate

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Assemblyman Albert Coutinho has been a key backer of the incentives bill.
Assemblyman Albert Coutinho has been a key backer of the incentives bill. - ()

With the Senate scheduled to vote on a bill that would revamp New Jersey's business incentives, its top Assembly sponsor said he is “cautiously optimistic” the measure will move ahead without any new amendments.

But if the bill is tweaked again in this afternoon's session, he said, the overhaul "at best" will not be revisited until after the November elections — and lawmakers may even be forced to start over.

"I am cautiously optimistic that the bill will pass as is, without amendments," Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Newark) said this morning. However, he added, "I'm concerned that any amendments, at the very best, will make it a lame-duck bill, and may just require us to start from scratch."

The bill in question is the closely watched Economic Opportunity Act. The measure has been on the drawing board for more than a year as officials seek to restock New Jersey's depleted incentive programs, while making them more competitive with neighboring states.

But the legislation has faced months of delays, many of them tied to amendments made as it shuttled between the Senate and Assembly and negotiated by leaders in Trenton.

The latest sticking points include a requirement that residential builders who receive subsidies set aside 20 percent of their units for affordable housing. The mandate was pulled from a version that cleared the Senate in late June, instead putting the issue in the hands of municipalities, but was later reinserted by Assembly sponsors amid several other amendments by the lower house.

The bill has effectively been in limbo since then, to the dismay of business and development groups that make up a broad coalition of support for the effort. And they say several major projects hang in the balance.

Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), the chief sponsor in his chamber, said in an e-mail that the amendment "made the bill virtually useless for smaller urban municipalities like Elizabeth, Trenton, Camden, Patterson, Passaic, Atlantic City," because it makes residential development unaffordable. He added that "if we don't amend it in the Senate, we'll have to rely on Governor (Chris) Christie to correct it with a conditional veto."

The measure, which Christie has publicly supported and pledged to sign, would consolidate five incentive programs into two while expanding eligibility and putting a greater focus on job creation. During negotiations, it's also been loaded with bonuses for South Jersey aimed at appealing to lawmakers from the region.

Coutinho said he has "great respect for (Lesniak), but the reality is we need to move this bill today, as is." He said has offered to work with Lesniak "on a standalone bill, during lame duck, to address any outstanding concerns that we have not covered in this bill."

But he also said he's told Lesniak and other Senate leaders that any amendments would delay action until after the election.

"And I am concerned that it could possibly have to be completely renegotiated, and end up being a new bill," Coutinho said.

Lesniak said he would make a full statement on the Senate floor. He is a member of the judiciary committee, which was scheduled to meet at 11 a.m. today. The full Senate was scheduled to meet at 2 p.m. for a voting session that includes the incentives bill.

Reporter Joshua Burd is @JoshBurdNJ on Twitter.

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