Businesses in New Jersey could use a little help.
In 2008, as the Great Recession began, total employment in the state was 4.28 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Now, 10 years later, it’s 4.29 million, essentially flat. Over the same period, employment in Texas increased by 19 percent.
There are lots of ways New Jersey state government could help stimulate business development. Unhappily, most of the ideas — like major tax law changes or a break to win the race to win Amazon’s second North American headquarters — are controversial and expensive.
Yet, there’s one thing state government could do immediately, and at virtually no cost, that would help local businesses greatly.
It could make the state’s public records accessible — either for free or a reasonable cost. The key item is the state’s corporation/LLC records.
All businesses interact with other businesses, either as customers or vendors.
So for targeting purposes, it’s handy — nearly necessary — to know the names and locations of all the businesses that exist statewide.
There is only one complete source for such a list. It is the New Jersey Secretary of State’s office, which maintains the state’s corporation records.
These are (allegedly) public records. But New Jersey charges far more for this database than any other state, making the data virtually inaccessible.
Many states — New York, Florida, Texas and more — make their corporation records free to download on the internet. Some charge modest fees ($200 in California; $62.50 in Ohio).
And then there’s New Jersey. It wants nearly $100,000 to get the same list.
If you find that hard to believe, try it for yourself at https://www.njportal.com/DOR/businessrecords/. Select a list that includes original filing dates from 1950 through today and you’ll get an automated reply that your total fee will be $91,000. For a modest-sized business like mine, that price is out of reach.
What this means is that if you sell business-to-business products or services, you must use private sources to get lists (also expensive), or else figure out some targeting method of your own.
Why does New Jersey have such a crazy public records system? I don’t know. Maybe the answer was long ago lost in the mists of history.
Ironically, these records are created from submissions made by the companies themselves, and each of them pays a substantial annual franchise tax. The state spends nothing to gather the information. And the records themselves contain no sensitive financial information.
In other states, businesses use corporation records heavily. New York began offering its corporation and LLC records for free online just a few years ago, and already these records have been viewed 85,500 times and entirely downloaded 13,800 times. Obviously, they are useful.
The message that a business gets from New Jersey’s state records policy is clear enough: We don’t care about what you need. It’s no wonder that employment in the state has failed to rebound after more than eight years of U.S. economic recovery.
And of course, the records-pricing policy is counterproductive to the state itself. A complete business list, free or at low cost, would enable thousands of New Jersey businesses to improve their marketing. They’d make more money and pay more state income tax.
So, why don’t we make a change? My firm asked that question in a letter sent in April to both Gov. Murphy and the secretary of state. No response yet.
Stu Feldstein is president of SMR Research Corp. in Hackettstown.