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Big issues for Trenton: Sick leave, estate tax

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Even to the most casual of Trenton spectators, it should come as no surprise that statewide business groups are gearing up for a battle this fall over paid sick leave.

After being first ushered in at the municipal level in Jersey City last year, other cities have followed with their own ordinances. And momentum now appears to be behind a statewide bill that Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Secaucus) has said will be a priority this fall.

How business groups will go about fighting the measure is still a topic for discussion. While they adamantly oppose the piecemeal approach of municipalities taking it upon themselves to draft paid sick leave ordinances, they don't support the uniformed statewide push, either.

“The issue really is (that) we oppose it,” said David Brogan, the New Jersey Business & Industry Association's first vice president. “We oppose it on the state level (and) we oppose it on the local level.”

It will be among the most hot-button issues for business as lawmakers return to Trenton, but it's certainly not the only one. Stakeholders also have their eyes on estate tax reform and the looming crisis over transportation funding, among other policy areas that affect employers in the Garden State.

For paid sick leave, the political buzz was already ramping up last month amid reports that officials in Paterson, Passaic and other cities were pushing ordinances. But that makes little difference to opponents: Laurie Ehlbeck, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, said that whether ushered in locally or statewide, paid sick leave is worth fighting because it presents a “potential administrative nightmare.”

“We are not in the position that we are going to be making any type of compromise,” Ehlbeck said.

Michael Egenton, senior vice president of government relations for the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, said that business groups are “going all in and saying we shouldn't be doing this now.”

He added that he has yet to see any information from a credible, nonbiased, third-party source suggesting they do otherwise.

“Show us the empirical data and the proof that this is a rampant problem. …We have not seen that,” Egenton said.

EDITORIAL: Our wish list for the next session in Trenton

One proposal currently being mulled for the fall that would garner the support of the business community would be a phase-out or reduction of the estate tax. State Sen. Steven Oroho (R-Sparta) introduced a bill earlier this year that would phase out the tax over a five-year period.

“That's something that we're conceptually supportive of,” Egenton said.

Brogan noted that while he's certainly supportive of bringing the topic up for debate this fall, immediate action on estate tax reform may prove to be a tall task in the wake and anticipation of back-to-back vicious budget cycles.

“I'm not sure if that can come to fruition, given the budget situation,” Brogan said. “But we'd like to see more discussion about things like that.”

And that doesn't just apply to the estate tax, Brogan said.

“A lot is going to depend on what the governor does in the next budget cycle, in regards to the pension situation,” Brogan added.

Infrastructure funding and, in particular, restoring the state's depleted Transportation Trust Fund, will also be a major initiative this fall, according to Anthony Pizzutillo of Smith Pizzutillo LLC, who also is a government affairs consultant for the state chapter of NAIOP, the commercial real estate group.

“That is becoming clearly, by far, the most important issue that New Jersey needs to deal with,” Pizzutillo said, “for all the obvious reasons, from public safety to economic development.”

Pizzutillo said he expects to see this fall the rollout of what should be a “rather large package” of bills made up of revenue raisers and others designed to streamline greater efficiencies. He added that he hopes it will receive bipartisan support.

Since the idea of a gas tax to restore the Transportation Trust Fund has been occasionally tossed around and then quickly dismissed each time, Egenton said he hopes “alternatives” are in the mix for how to go about funding it.

Whatever the solution, Egenton said it has to be “protected, lock-box (and) constitutionally dedicated,” in order to prevent any concern that the funds are being siphoned off elsewhere.

As fall issues go, Pizzutillo said the real estate community is also particularly focused on streamlining of development applications with consistent zoning, along with reforms to land use, escrow performance bonds and restaurant liquor licenses.

Coming off a year that saw the implementation of a minimum wage hike, continued rollout of the Affordable Care Act and most recently the signing of “ban the box,” some in the business community say that one of the top priorities heading into the next legislative cycle is just making sure that Trenton stays away from imposing any more mandates on employers.

“It's not that one issue in and of itself is going to make or break the state overall,” Egenton said. “It's a combination of these issues.”

“Every mandate that is placed on business has a cost,” Brogan added. “And these costs have to be made up somewhere.”

E-mail to: andrewg@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @andrgeorge

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