Business Notes

Making New Jersey Affordable Is on Agenda of Opportunity NJ Coalition

By MARIA SCANDALE | Jan 18, 2017
Photo by: Jack Reynolds

The topic “GPS for an Affordable New Jersey” pointed to some of the hottest issues in the state when leaders of the organization Opportunity NJ spoke to the Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce Jan. 12 at the Holiday Inn in Manahawkin.

Also hosting were chambers of Greater Toms River, Brick and Lakewood, which together as the Ocean County Commerce Coalition presented the program.

Opportunity NJ is a business advocacy coalition co-chaired by Thomas Bracken and attorney Michele Siekerka. In their “day jobs,” Bracken is president/CEO of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce and Siekerka is president/CEO of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association.

On the topic “GPS for an Affordable New Jersey,” ONJ has identified four immediate critical areas affecting affordability in New Jersey: tax reform, infrastructure investment, workforce development/jobs and regulation reform.

“What we’re looking to do on this agenda for affordability is identify some very particular issues that are driving people out of the state of New Jersey,” said Siekerka.

“We are the No. 1 out-migration state in the nation. Over the last 11 years we’ve lost over $20 billion in net adjusted gross income from the state of New Jersey.

“We need to have a comprehensive agenda to make New Jersey more affordable, so we quell this tide of out-migration.”

Rather than to Florida, the main state to which New Jerseyans relocate is Pennsylvania, and the second is New York, their research found.

To “make New Jersey affordable for all residents to live and work,” ONJ proposes a need to “reduce our overall tax burden, cut through the red tape of government and eliminate antiquated regulations that are a burden and undue cost to citizens and businesses,” among other suggestions (see the website for more).

ONJ describes itself as a “nonpartisan grassroots coalition comprised of New Jersey interests representing employers, employees, business, trade groups, community organizations and other concerned citizens in the State.” And “with no direct ties to political parties or government, ONJ serves as an independent voice to provide data-based education about New Jersey policy actions – and to support policies that encourage job growth, affordability and prosperity in New Jersey.”

“What we are trying to do with our coalition is change the way things are being done in Trenton,” Bracken said at the Jan. 12 chamber presentation, which was sponsored by TD Bank.

Opportunity NJ was formed after state legislative leaders reneged on a promise to hold quarterly follow-up meetings with a broad pilot group of businesspeople and others, to seek compromise on issues, as Bracken described. Three months after that verbal promise, he was told there would be no meeting. Instead, bills on several hotbed issues were introduced.

“The very next day ... three things were put on the table ... the constitutional pension issue, which was to put the $5 billion payment in the Constitution; the $15 minimum wage; and fast-tracking the paid sick leave.”:

These were “all things that we were hoping to have a conversation about but we didn’t have any opportunity to discuss, and they laid them all on the table and really put it up for almost instantaneous voting, without any discussion, with ... minimal hearings.

“That was too much for us, the biggest slap in the face we could imagine. So, Michele and I and a group got together out of that 500 (who had packed the pilot meeting in Atlantic City) and put together a board of directors and formed a 501(C)4 called Opportunity NJ.”

The aim was to “take the bull by the horns and do what we had hoped to do with that group of legislators – do it ourselves and be able to present our own plans to the Legislature and the administration and back it with facts and have a grassroots initiative so that we could educate people about what was going on in the state.”

What fueled the original pilot business summit at the Borgata in September 2015, Bracken said, was that organizations “shared some common misgivings about the direction of the state – where we were, where we need to go, the future of the state, the fact that the metrics of the state were going south, literally and figuratively – and we need to try to find a way to turn that around.”

The Opportunity NJ co-chairpersons were proud to report that so far, key tax issues they helped promote were passed, and some other bills evoking their misgivings were put off.

“We now have the elimination of estate tax ... that drove people, retiring seniors, out of the state. We now have relief, where less retirement income is going to be taxed, which means more seniors are going to be staying,” Siekerka said.

The issues dashed last year included the constitutional pension issue and the $15-per-hour minimum wage. Bracken said the business advocacy group wants to seek other answers.

(The New Jersey Public Worker Pension Plan amendment would have outlined a new public pension payment plan that would have required the state to pay toward pensions four times per year, rather than annually. Starting in the 2018 fiscal year, the state would have had to contribute $2.4 billion, then that amount would have been raised to $5.5 billion by 2020. The amendment was not on the Nov. 8, 2016 ballot in New Jersey as a legislatively referred constitutional amendment. The New Jersey Legislature did not vote on the potential measure by the Aug. 8, 2016, deadline.)

Said Bracken, “We take a lot of pride in some of the things that we did last year. We put off the constitutional pension, which is not on the ballot this year, will not be on the ballot next year and hopefully will never be on the ballot, and there will be a better way to find a solution to our pension issue.

“The $15 minimum wage, that’s not going away. To put that into perspective, we are not against having an affordable living wage for the workforce. What we are against is mandating a dollar amount without any real vetting of that dollar amount and embedding it into the Constitution where it does not belong.”

“We want to have an ongoing dialog to have people sit down and find a better solution not only to the $15 minimum wage issue, but the constitutional pension issue. We are very diligently trying to have those types of conversations and those people brought together around the table to find real solutions to help the issue, solve the problem, but also don’t impact negatively the vast majority of the people in New Jersey, which, I think the $15 an hour minimum wage and constitutional pension would have done.”

*   *   *

The rest of the discussion to the chamber members outlined the Four Pillars for more affordability in the state.

“I don’t think I have to tell you why people in New Jersey feel that New Jersey is no longer affordable,” said Siekerka. “In fact, if you talk to anybody in this room, you may all give me a different reason why you think New Jersey is not affordable to you.”

As a businessperson, the reason may be regulatory mandates and other demands, Siekerka said.

As a homeowner, it may be the property tax bill.

“There’s a point where you are willing to pay that premium for being here in New Jersey, but many are at a point where it’s a super-premium; you just can’t afford it anymore.”

Not only does the state lose taxable income from those who move away, the community loses the charitable giving and volunteering from those people. The economy loses when those people are not there to patronize restaurants, buy houses or cars or gifts there.

Although some tax reform has been accomplished, “we need a lot more of it,” Siekerka said.

Several suggestions are proposed regarding advance tax credits to stimulate the economy. And on property tax, ONJ’s suggestions include incentivizing municipal consolidation, reforming school aid funding and creating workable affordable housing requirements.

On another pillar, “workforce development and jobs,” the overall goal is to “ensure that New Jersey’s future workers are workforce-ready with technical and employability skills being articulated through the education life cycle,” says the position paper.

“Our future workforce is leaving the state of New Jersey at the highest rate in the nation, That’s a problem for all of us. So we need to have workforce opportunity, we need a higher ed strategy, New Jersey needs to talk about affordability for millennials,” said Siekerka.

The 15 organizations that make up the board of directors provides 4 million jobs, “half the jobs in the state of New Jersey,” Siekerka said.

ONJ’s stance against mandating a $15 minimum wage brings up questions of whether employers could sustain the hours and the benefits that such jobs carry now.

The result should not be that we “hurt the people who we are tying to help,” Siekerka said.

And “what about exemptions?” Sierkerka proposed. “What about teenage students who work on your shorelines all summer on the boardwalk: are you going to pay them $15 an hour for someone to throw the ball at the can? No, so we have to look at exemptions. You can’t have a one-size-fits-all policy in the state of New Jersey. That has to be part of the discussion.”

On another note, the 23-cent gas tax to fund the Transportation Trust Fund, Bracken said, is “a positive, not a negative. There was no better alternative for an investment in the most important asset in the state of New Jersey, which is the infrastructure.”

“No state has the location that we do. No state has the infrastructure that we do, although it’s in bad shape. No state has the demographics we do: the wealth, the affluence, the educational system that we have. And for all that affluence and for all that wealth, we rank from 48th to 50th in every single poll from a business competitive standpoint. There’s something wrong.

“So, knowing that, that’s what’s driving us to take advantage of the resources we have, to get us back to a competitive situation. And to get us there, the affordability issue is key, because that’s what’s going to be what brings jobs back, and carries more revenue form a broader base of people. That’s what we need to help some of the fiscal problems we have in the state of New Jersey.”

ONJ is also preparing a comprehensive white paper listing its positions, to be used when it approaches candidates running for the state Legislature and for governor.

Siekerka said the group is doing outreach to audiences such as the chamber members to broaden its reach and support “not only from the standpoint of organizations, but to the grassroots among all of the different businesses and their employees.”

“We knew when we put this together, we were taking a risk,” Bracken said, “because we were changing the status quo, and politicians like the status quo.

“And we know we had success, because the leaders of our political parties and legislative organizations and the administration have literally tried to shut us down. We got back all that headwind; we’ve grown.”

“The organization is strong, and it’s growing, and we’re going out to talk to people like you to let you know what we’re doing, and hopefully get your support.  ... You cannot do anything individually in the state of New Jersey; it just does not happen,” said Siekerka.










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