A long-awaited bill to revamp New Jersey's business incentives is headed to Gov. Chris Christie's desk — and top lawmakers hope he'll use his conditional veto to settle some of the issues that have stalled the measure in recent months.
In a session this afternoon, the Senate voted 30-4 to pass the Economic Opportunity Act, concurring with an Assembly version passed in late June. The tally marked a compromise by top boosters, including Sen. Raymond Lesniak, who has taken issue with recent amendments but said further delays would risk economic growth in the state.
"As it is now … this legislation is virtually useless for many of our communities," said Lesniak (D-Union). "But for all of the other good that this bill does, we're going to send it to the governor and ask him to do the right thing. And we'll be right back to correct it."
Christie has long said he supports an incentives overhaul, and several lawmakers today said they expected him to conditionally veto the measure.
In recent weeks, Lesniak has criticized a requirement that residential builders who receive subsidies set aside 20 percent of their units for affordable housing, which he said made residential development unaffordable in cities like Elizabeth, Trenton and Camden. 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.
But Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Newark), its other top sponsor, issued an ultimatum, saying his chamber wouldn't consider the bill with yet another round of amendments. At best, he said, it would be revisited after the November elections — and lawmakers could have been forced to start over.
That forced Lesniak's hand today. While voting in favor of the Assembly version, the senator also introduced amendments to lift the affordable housing requirement and provide $200 million in tax credits for redeveloping older low-income housing projects.
Speaking on the Senate floor, he was also critical of the Assembly, saying it "refused to acknowledge and recognize that they've made a mistake."
"The governor, in his wisdom, could add this to his conditional veto as well," Lesniak said. "That would be wonderful, but we're going to have to work together to correct the flaws that the Assembly refuses to correct."
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. It would consolidate five incentive programs into two while expanding eligibility and putting a greater focus on job creation.
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. During negotiations, it's also been loaded with bonuses for South Jersey aimed at appealing to lawmakers from the region.
The bill had effectively been in limbo since the June amendments, to the dismay of business and development groups that make up a broad coalition of support for the effort. And they have said several major projects hang in the balance.
The delay was a visible source of lament for lawmakers today, including Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth), another top sponsor. He said "there's no doubt in my mind that in the intervening six months … that we've lost jobs, that citizens that we represent have lost out on opportunities."
And while "this is not a perfect bill," he called it "essential because of the economic times that we've lived in."
"The governor is waiting for this. He has been waiting for months now," Kyrillos said, later adding. "I'm hopeful, and I know and expect that the governor will do the necessary surgery to this bill. We'll be back … in short order to finish the job, and I urge the General Assembly to do its job, and get back to the Statehouse and concur with what we expect to be a conditional veto."
Reporter Joshua Burd is @JoshBurdNJ on Twitter.