Opportunity NJ (ONJ) has a simple message for the next governor: the private sector will not be ignored.
Tom Bracken, CEO of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce – one of the lead organizations in ONJ – told NJBIZ that when the new governor is elected, his group’s first priority will be to make sure that the state’s private sector is involved in finding solutions to New Jersey’s myriad of economic problems.
“Gov. Christie didn’t solicit much outreach, [his administration was] within the halls of Trenton,” Bracken said. “There were a lot of things on their agenda that we didn’t agree with. If you look at where that strategy has taken us over the last 10 years--it has taken us to a very dangerous place.”
ONJ is a non-partisan, state business coalition group led by the NJ Business & Industry Association and the Chamber of Commerce. It is days away from releasing a white paper that will be presented to both gubernatorial candidates, Democrat Phil Murphy and Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, in which recommendations will be made on four pillars: tax reform, workforce development, infrastructure and business deregulation.
Those pillars were introduced during the group’s Affordability Summit late last month. ONJ is finalizing the white paper, which is based on the ideas presented at the summit.
“The lead in statement of our paper is going to be that solutions come to government – not from it,” Bracken said. “All too often the government is the only deliberative and decision-making body involved in [the four pillars], and that is a big mistake…We have to have solutions presented to the government and then to be part of them. The government must have conversations with outside entities, I can’t overemphasize that enough. If we don’t do this, our state will continue to languish in mediocrity at best and continue to decline economically and population wise.”
The white paper addresses how to lower property taxes. In survey after survey, New Jersey has ranked as having the highest property taxes in the country. Bracken said that the state must do more than simply impose a 2 percent arbitration cap on police and fireman wages to lower property taxes.
“A lot of things contribute to our high property taxes,” Bracken said, adding that there needs to be an “honest discussion on what those drivers are and what we can do to reduce those costs.”
Keeping property taxes at a 2 percent increase “does nothing for the issue other than that it keeps going up,” said Bracken. “So we need to reduce property taxes and the way to do that is to put the drivers on the table and talk about the drivers and see what we can do to reduce them,” he said.
Bracken’s group did help the state eliminate the estate tax in 2015, but more needs to be done in terms of tax reform, he said. For instance, ONJ will advocate eliminating the inheritance tax and increase the $100,000 limit on retirement income taxes. As of today, a couple in the state filing jointly with a total income of $100,000 or less will be able to exclude up to $100,000 of retirement income on their New Jersey tax return.
“The $100,000 figure is probably still a little low if we want to keep more retirees here and have them add to our economy,” Bracken said.
As for regulation, Bracken said that the state should explore establishing uniform regulations on businesses between townships. Currently, businesses looking to open offices in multiple townships must meet zoning and other regulations that differ from town to town.
“We are over regulated,” Bracken said. “Each fiefdom has their own set of regulations, and if you comply with one set of regulations you might not be in compliance with another. That is a big issue for us.”
Bracken stressed, however, that the white paper will not make specific recommendations, rather, its main purpose is to encourage dialogue between the state government and business and community leaders.
“If we listed 100 issues, they’re never going to see the light of day,” Bracken said. “We will absolutely demand the need for a sit down dialogue, because that’s where solutions will come from – not from a white paper.” If the candidates do not make the time to do that, “then they’ll be reading about it,” he said. “Once one of them gets elected, we will present specific recommendations it to the governor-elect.”
Bracken added that he expects some resistance to ONJ’s demands on the part of government officials, but he expects progress to be made nevertheless. “We are not going to get applauded by the legislature or the governor – they’re going to take exception to what we say, but we’re going to keep doing this until progress is made.”
While ONJ does not endorse either candidate, Bracken dismissed the notion that Guadagno would follow Gov. Chris Christie’s policies simply because she is his Lt. Governor.
Guadagno was named as the state’s first Lt. Gov. in 2015, when Chris briefly ran for president, then spent time in Washington, D.C., backing Donald Trump. Those moves, in part, caused Christie’s approval ratings to plummet.
“Guadagno was very loyal [to Gov. Chirstie] and she was a good soldier, and that’s admirable,” Bracken said. “But she was very different when left to her own devices. There’s no question she’d going to be her own candidate.”